Friday, October 26, 2012

Money and Marriage

I've been reading a lot of Victorian novels in the last few years. Slowly it is has dawned on me that the subject matter of most Victorian novels can be algebraically reduced to two main topics: Money and Marriage. All the characters' ideas, efforts, and conversation tend toward these two things, either as future goals or as present problems.

To be sure, another common theme may be the keeping of guilty secrets—but those mostly have to do with money and/or marriage. Another frequent theme is religious piety—but mainly as it impacts, or is impacted by, money and/or marriage. Crime and the solving of crimes can often be seen as a theme in these novels—but can you guess the usual motives for such crimes? Also, admittedly, a lot of Victorian novels go in strongly for social reform—but almost all social reform is at least indirectly related to money, and what little is left may be considered relevant to marriage.

And besides... Most of the melodrama relating to marriage is based on concerns about money. People who want to get married are prevented by the lack of money, or by disparities of income and property, or by social mores that disapprove of marriage regardless of these concerns. Matrimonial prospects are evaluated in the light of the money they will bring to the union. Marital happiness or strife will be measured by the degree to which the couple is well-matched in their handling of money matters. Adventurers go about deceiving marriageable women with the same hue of mendacity with which embezzlers, spongers, and grifters grasp after the funds of others. Horrors of villainy and revenge have as their target either the innocence of eligible daughters or the disposition of wealth and property.

So, in a crassly simplistic sense, the 19th century novel is pretty much all about money, with marriage often added as a sugary coating to help it go down.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hornung Melling Tolkien

The Amateur Cracksman
by E. W. Hornung
Recommended Ages: 12+

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraged his brother-in-law Ernest William Hornung (1866–1921) to publish a series of articles in the same Strand magazine in which the former's tales of Sherlock Holmes were also printed. Hornung went ahead and created the comic antithesis of Holmes: A. J. Raffles, a charming, athletic rogue who supports his playboy lifestyle by perpetrating a series of daring burglaries. Or perhaps it's the other way round, and Raffles uses his fame as a cricket player and gentleman's-club-haunting bon vivant as a cover for his true calling. For surely, no jewel thief ever brought a cooler head, a subtler artistry, or a keener enthusiasm to the crime.

As Holmes has Watson, Raffles has a half-hero-worshiping, half-resentful sidekick to narrate his escapades: an old public-school chum whom we know only by his pet name Bunny. (Later books in the series reveal that his full name is Harry Manders.) In this collection of the first eight Raffles stories, Bunny reveals how their first heist together diverted the bankrupt freelance writer from the plan to blow his brains out. Owing his life to Raffles, Bunny follows him from one caper to another, always a little at sea because of his friend's slowness to let him in on the plan. They come away from a close scrape empty-handed, pull success out of the jaws of failure, solve a murder they planned to commit(!!), help a prisoner escape, and all the while feel the haggis-scented breath of Scotland Yard's Inspector MacKenzie on the napes of their necks, as the law slowly but inevitably catches up with them.

If it seems, at the end of this book of whimsically naughty tales, that it's all over for Raffles and Bunny, take heart. This is only the first of three sets of stories featuring the rascals. The Black Mask (published in the U.S. as The Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman) depicts a later phase of their career, after Raffles' cricketer secret identity has been blown. A Thief in the Night includes additional stories from both phases of their career. And the series culminates in a full-length novel, Mr. Justice Raffles. If you're into the Holmes stories and you would like to see a contemporary representative on the other side of the law, this series may be for you. If you've ever noticed how often the name "Raffles" comes up as the answer to a crossword clue (gentleman thief, 7 letters), or wondered about it when a character in an English novel dropped his name by way of an pre-World War I pop-culture reference, here is your chance to experience at first hand the subversive humor, light suspense, mild surprises, and roguish sex appeal that made Hornung's hero a favorite in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Political Incorrectness Advisory: Just a caution to schoolteachers looking for books to share with their students: You might want to give this one a pass. The book makes several references to being a "fag" and "fagging"—which at the time meant something other than what today's young people will probably think—and, in describing one character's black servants, drops the "N" bomb as well as a "K" word that became a no-no during the controversy over South African Apartheid. A word to the wise, etc.

The Hunter's Moon
by O. R. Melling
Recommended Ages: 13+

Findabhair (pronounced Finn-uh-veer) is a teenager who believes in fairies. She's Irish, so I guess that's all right. But her American cousin Gwen believes in fairies too, and thereby hangs a lot of trouble. When the two girls get together for a summer holiday, they set out on a tour of the ancient sites of Irish folklore, especially those kissed by a memory of magic—starting with Tara, for two thousand years the spiritual heart of Ireland and (according to the author's note at the end of the book) soon to become a motorway. Even as modern Ireland sweeps away every trace of "old Ireland," however, the girls discover at least one place where the magic is still alive. And that's where the trouble begins. During a daring night camped out in an ancient monument, Findabhair is abducted by fairies and poor, plump, out-of-her-element Gwen must assume the role of heroine, setting out to rescue her.

Gwen's journey takes her from one end of Ireland to the other, and brings her together with a series of new-found friends who also buck modern trends and Believe in Faerie. She also runs into many dangers and fends off a variety of faerie tricks. She partakes of a magical fellowship, and tastes the magic of love. But at the end of her journey, she learns that she must lead a war party into the darkest place in all the worlds and fight a perhaps hopeless battle, only to save her cousin from being sacrificed to the embodiment of darkness, evil, and death. As the story climaxes, the reader will share Gwen's exultation, horror, thrill of battle, and agony of loss—as well as a wistfully hopeful ending that may leave you sniffling and saying to yourself, "Isn't that just Ireland all over!"

Being a lover of fantasy, I can't long avoid novels that imbibe Irish folklore. The problem is that I know just enough of the Irish language to be painfully aware that my best guess as to how each word should sound in my mind's ear is as far from the actual pronunciation as the White Gates of Morning from the Black Gates of Night. It's terribly vexing. So I owe O. R. Melling (pen name of Canadian-Irish author G. V. Whelan) a deep bow of thanks for kindly supplying a glossary with pronunciation aids for us hopeless anglophones. Her "Chronicles of Faerie" series continues with the titles The Summer King, The Light-Bearer's Daughter, and The Book of Dreams. Plus, her stand-alone novels, mostly for young-adult readers, include The Singing Stone, The Druid's Tune, My Blue Country, and Falling Out of Time.

The Silmarillion
by J. R. R. Tolkien
edited by Christopher Tolkien
Recommended Ages: 13+

When The Hobbit was a hit, Tolkien's publisher asked for a sequel and, so the story goes, an early draft of this book is what Tolkien first submitted. The publisher was so perplexed that he sent it back, and so Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings instead. In that staggeringly casual, "oh well, here goes" kind of way was written one of the great stories of our age, a modern-day myth that has shaped so many works of fiction since then, including most of the fantasy genre. But The Silmarillion remained unfinished when Tolkien died. It was left to his son Christopher to patch together J. R. R.'s unpublished writings and fill in the missing pieces of this book, with the help of other fantasy mavens such as Guy Gavriel Kay. And so The Silmarillion became the cornerstone of a vast amount of posthumously-published material collated by Tolkien heirs and scholars up to the present day, much of it having to do with the same fantasy world of Middle Earth where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings took place.

This bit of background information may serve to explain why this book is so marvelously insane, or insanely marvelous. In it, essentially, Tolkien creates the entire mythology of the world in which his fantasy masterpieces find their setting. It's a marvelous insanity like that of Peter Jackson, who in filming The Lord of the Rings strove for such a depth of authentic detail that many touches, such as the miles of handmade chain mail worn by the extras in many a crowded battle scene, were hardly seen on screen at all. Likewise, Tolkien fleshes out the background behind the great doings of The Lord of the Rings with not only a sketchy story outline, or a few surplus details, but with a whole vast canvas of history going back to the creation of the world and spanning ages on a scale so huge that the entire Rings saga appears alongside as a brief, parenthetical afterthought. He peoples those eons with a hierarchy of immortal beings who make the elves of Frodo's time seem puny and contemptible by comparison. He imagines languages, peoples, eons of time, and the natural history of whole worldfuls of geography (one world after another, as wars and catastrophes continually reshape the land), titanic conflicts, and the individual melodramas of an immense cast of characters whose comings and goings, sayings and doings, seem fit to stand alongside any epic cycle, saga, myth, or legend in world culture. He creates a reality that seems to be the work of several lifetimes, and all of it to furnish one fully-realized work of art (LOTR) with a fittingly scaled and textured wall to hang on. It's insane. And it's wonderful.

Tolkien writes in brutal disregard of all conventional notions of what makes a book readable, but he does so with incredible lyricism. He writes of spans of time and space that are incomprehensible, while the reader's brain hums like a machine in high gear. He dismisses impossibly long stretches of time with a fraction of a sentence, then tells tales of glory and tragedy and love and fate and conflict between good and evil, in wealth of incident and depth of detail. He zooms in on the weaknesses of his most admirable characters, the fears of the most courageous, the doom of the most powerful, the bitter ironies and mournful mysteries of so many good things that have been turned to evil or destroyed or lost forever. And he persists in coloring his world in shades of nostalgia, in a view of the world as one that has continually, or incrementally, become weakened or diminished or broken, even while light lingered through its darkest times.

The Silmarillion is a novel in five parts of unequal proportions. The greater part of it unfolds the legends of the wars between the powers of the world that existed before mankind came into being. It is interesting to see man depicted as a late-coming race within the world, a race whose very mortality is the gift that ensured that man's dominion would grow as the immortal elves waned. One of the master touches of fantasy is the ability to see all of mankind from an outside point of view, and there are few books that accomplish this so well as The Silmarillion. But even when the elves have the world pretty much to themselves, there is plenty of folly and misunderstanding and conflict and horror. Their history is a long-unspooling thread of curses, vows, revenges, bitter fates, wars against a tirelessly plotting foe, and needless injuries between those who should have been friends and allies. The entire history of elvendom is a continuous movement out of Middle Earth and towards the undying lands of the west, delayed and set back by the ill chances of a world over which, for many ages, only the stars shone, and in which evil got an early foothold.

You can come to this book to find out where folks like Elrond and Sauron, or creatures like Shelob came from; to learn what sets the dwarves apart from the elves; to see the shining beginnings of places that are already in ruin by the time The Lord of the Rings takes place; to learn the stories that lie behind the ancient beings encountered, the names dropped, and songs quoted like clues to a reality beyond what the characters in that book directly experience. That reality is not merely suggested, but actually exists in this monument of one man's mythopoeic imagination. I was right to be afraid to read it for so many years. But now that I have read it, I realize that I was afraid for the wrong reasons. It isn't an occult book of secret Dungeons-&-Dragons lore to subvert the imagination of a pious youth. Nor is it an unreadably tedious tome of made-up lingo and pompous platitudes. It is a huge, noble, powerful, eventful story, or collection of stories, that will move your heart, spark your imagination, and perhaps exert a good influence over the way you think about courage, and pride, and responsibility, and honor. It is a book of phony history that could plant in your mind useful thoughts about the true nature of history. It is a book that could help you understand something about the world's sickness—and not only to grieve over it, but to hope for its healing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hunt O'Dell Pattou

Up a Road Slowly
by Irene Hunt
Recommended Ages: 10+

A little while ago, I asked my friends on a certain social-networking website to name the "perfect novel," if they had read it. One of them named this book first published in 1966, which was already on my short list of things to read. I can't find that discussion thread right now, but I recall that my friend added something like, "...or pretty much anything by Irene Hunt." Such a strong recommendation could only push this book even higher on my to-do list. Until I read it, all I knew about it was that it fell into the category of "coming of age" stories, that it was a Newbery medalist (another category I have been "collecting" for my book review column), and that it is the second book by the author whose debut novel was the highly acclaimed Across Five Aprils. Past experience has taught me by these clues to expect something at least reasonably good. In actually reading the book, however, I found that it was more than reasonably good: it is a book of uncommon candor, intelligence, and heart.

It takes the form of a young woman's memoir of a decade of her life, between the ages of seven and seventeen, that changed the shape of her family and her notion of her own place in it; years that challenged her to recognize her own weaknesses and to forgive those of the people around her. Julie Trelling's ten-year journey begins with a hysterical fit after her mother's funeral, when she and her brother are sent out of town to live with her schoolmarmish maiden aunt while her idolized older sister Laura stays behind to take care of Father. Julie's feelings of grief and loneliness grow with her as Laura gets married and has a child of her own; as her brother Chris gets sent away to a boarding school; and as her father and his new wife redecorate the home of Julie's childhood right out of existence.

In spite of all this, Julie remains on good terms with her "holiday parents," but grows to accept Aunt Cordelia's country house as her home—even as she moves on to high school and Cordelia's career as a primary-school teacher comes to an end. She bears witness to a romantic tragedy when Aunt Cordelia's quondam beau moves back into the neighborhood with his fragile, demented wife. This bittersweet reunion brings pain not only to the long-separated lovers but also to Cordelia's ne'er-do-well brother Haskell, whose alcoholic self-destruction achieves its final phase during the strange affair of Mrs. Eltwing. And Julie, meanwhile, wonders whether her ambition to be a writer might mean she is too like Uncle Haskell for her own good.

Besides all this, Julie experiences her own disasters of the heart, while also picking up an education that many of today's young people ought to envy. Julie demonstrates a familiarity with books no teacher of mine ever required me to read, including some that I have only lately come to appreciate on the cusp of middle age. Taking note of the books Julie refers to, adding them to one's reading list, and understanding the words and expressions she uses in her narrative, could in itself be a small-scale education for a bright young reader. Teachers who recommend, require, or read this book to their students may be giving them a valuable gift.

It isn't quite clear where or when Julie's coming-of-age takes place. It's somewhere in the middle of America, given that the "eastern universities" are said to be half a continent away; and it's sometime when both automobiles and horse-drawn buggies could be seen on the same country roads and even in the same garage. It's a time when a girl whose honor was compromised might suddenly be sent to live with an aunt in Idaho, to the heartbreak of her friends; when people didn't believe in talking longer than three minutes on a long-distance phone call; and when small-town, one-room schools were beginning to consolidate into larger school districts. It's a time when a train conductor might give a sad little girl the wisest advice of her life, when a horseback ride in the woods might happen only five miles outside a college town, and when an inflexibly fussy old aunt may provide all the warmth of home that a growing girl needs. If there is no such place in today's world, it is our loss; except to the extent that we can visit it, and comfort ourselves in its warmth, by reading this book.

Author Irene Hunt died on her 94th birthday in 2001. Her later books (published between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s), are mostly historical novels for younger readers, often marked by sensitivity toward the poor, disabled, and minorities. Their titles include Trail of Apple Blossoms, No Promises in the Wind, The Lottery Rose, William, Claws of a Young Century, and The Everlasting Hills.

Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O'Dell
Recommended Ages: 10+

This 1961 Newbery Medal winner has come to be regarded as a classic of historical fiction for young readers, written by one of America's most honored children's authors. I remember seeing a film based on this book when I was a grade-schooler, and the feelings of heartbreak and loneliness that I associated with that film were still on target when I read the book at age 40. It's an amazing, inspiring, exciting story, rich in discoveries about creatures of beauty and wildness and teeming variety; yet at the same time, it is a tale of deep melancholy whose ending may leave you wistful.

It is the story of a girl named Karana, whose people hunt the sea-life on and around their small, remote island in the Pacific. Most of the men in Karana's tribe are killed in a battle with Aleuts, led by a Russian furrier, who have tried to cheat the islanders after hunting the sea-otters around the island close to extinction. Later a ship sailed by white men, invited by their old chief, takes the surviving islanders off to their mission in California. By a strange twist of fate, Karana is left behind and must find a way to survive alone on the island until the white men come back for her.

Karana waits year after year. But she must do more than wait. She must hunt for her own food. She must defend herself against the wild dogs who have already killed her brother. She must make a shelter to protect herself and her food supply from scavengers, predators, and the harsh elements. She must make her own canoe, in spite of a shortage of wood for the job. She tries to sail for the next island to the east, over the horizon, but is lucky to make it back alive to where she began. As so many seasons pass that the young woman stops counting them, she finds ways to fill even deeper needs: the need for companionship, supplied by the animals on the island; the need for beauty, even though she has no one to share it with; the need to explore the mysteries and wonders on, around, and beneath her island.

This book is a powerful instrument of the imagination—not only demonstrating that its author had one, but stirring the reader's too. It makes all your senses aware of such (for most of us) faraway things as sea anemones, giant squid, otters, sea elephants, and cormorants. But here's a fact that will really get the wheels of your imagination turning: THIS BOOK IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY. The so-called Island of the Blue Dolphins actually exists, off the coast of California. Now called San Nicolas Island, it belongs to the U.S. Navy. The main character of this book is likewise based on a real person, variously known as "Juana Maria" or "the lone woman of San Nicolas Island," and she lived alone there for 18 years before being rescued, dying only a few weeks later at the Santa Barbara mission in California. Author O'Dell includes some information about her fate, and the archaeological discoveries regarding her long-vanished people, in an afterword to this book. If you can't wait for that, you can wiki it for yourself. And if you read this book and find yourself even more interested than you are now, behold: Scott O'Dell also wrote a sequel, titled Zia.

Hero's Song
by Edith Pattou
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this first book of the "Songs of Eirren" series, the world of Irish legends become accessible to American youth. This is no guarantee that American readers at any age will be ready to guess how to pronounce words given in their Gaelic spelling, which I find so baffling that English spelling seems intuitive beside it. Fortunately, there are only a few of these in this book. And so it is left to the sensuously depicted landscape, the quality of the characters, and the shape of the adventure to give this story that unmistakable Irish lilt.

Main character Collun does not think of himself as a hero. Far sooner than battle monsters with a sword, he would be up to his elbows in the soil of his garden in the far south of Eirren—the country we know as Ireland. But after his sister disappears during a visit to their city aunt, and his mother begins to waste away for grief, and the village idiot tells him it is time for him to go, Collun braces himself for adventure. His unloving, blacksmith father does him one last favor—forging his garden fork into a dagger—and pushes him out the door with nothing but a wallet full of herbs, a bit of food, and a sense of his own cowardice.

Soon enough, Collun's courage is tested when some grey-skinned, yellow-eyed creatures called morgs try to scrobble him. Though his performance is nothing to be proud of, Collun survives—partly thanks to the group of traveling companions he has begun to accumulate. There is, first of all, the aspiring bard Talisen, who can harp with the best of them, but yearns to learn how to write his own songs. Then there is Brie, a fiery archer who turns out to be a girl in disguise. Add a prince of the Ellyl (something like the "fair folk"), whose power comes in handy when he sees fit to use it, and Collun's fellowship is almost complete.

But now an evil queen from the north plans to invade Eirren, a queen who holds Collun's beloved sister hostage. And while the boy learns grim secrets about his true father—a hero fallen in more than one sense—and considers the purpose of the lucky stone his mother passed down him, Collun realizes that the most deadly monster is for him to face alone.

Collun is an easy hero to love, but the challenges he encounters in this story are anything but easy or painless. This is the tale of an ancient culture distilled down to one young man's personal quest for family, home, peace, and belonging. After he knows himself to be weak and afraid, he finds that he has no choice but to act strong and brave. And though the touch of evil leaves its mark on him, he remains good. With such an appealing character at its center, surrounded by such unfulfilled prospects of love and happiness, involved in such fleet-footed and magical adventures told in such a clear and direct way, this book can hardly miss the aim of making you eager to read its sequel, Fire Arrow.

Fire Arrow
by Edith Pattou
Recommended Ages: 12+

After the events of Hero's Song, hero's daughter and expert archer Brie, a.k.a. Breo-Saight, settles down for a little while with her friend Collun, as he takes possession of the stronghold of his hero father and begins to set its gardens in order. While Collun exerts on Brie a peaceable influence, she feels increasingly drawn back into her quest for revenge on the men who murdered her father in front of her. And so she parts from Collun and sets out alone. Returning to her own father's stronghold, now held by her uncle and aunt, Brie soon picks up the trail of an evil character connected somehow with her father's killers. Meanwhile, she also picks up a powerful magical talisman—the fire arrow for which she is named—which seems to lead her ever deeper into adventure.

Brie follows vague rumors and intuitions about her own ancestry to the small, isolated, northwestern kingdom of Dungal, where she soon makes new friends, learns a new language, and enters into a new way of life. But even amid the joys of living in an almost magically peaceful fishing village, a shadow of evil falls across Brie's path. Goat-men, sea monsters, and deadly figures from her past lurk just beyond the edge of her awareness, quick to attack her when her guard is down, or to harm those she has come to care about. A betrayer from within her own family threatens to conquer the gentle land of Dungal in the name of the evil sorceress who rules neighboring Scath. And the visions and powers that the fire-arrow bring may lead Brie either to save the land or to destroy herself.

This second book of "The Songs of Eirren" depicts a powerful female warrior from a remote age of Irish legend. It shows her in the tenderness of young love, in the warmth of friendship, in the confusion of conflicting desires, in the terror and wonder of battle against superior numbers and magical foes, in the doubt of an honest conscience, and in the courage of a noble heart. It is a story whose themes are drawn from many springs of folklore, while its characters breathe their own distinctive, memorable life—from a mad old sea-sorcerer who babbles nonsense songs while weaving spells of power, to a comically cowardly Ellyl (elf). It features a quaint wedding that will conjure fond echoes in the hearts of those who have read Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea chronicles (particularly The Farthest Shore). And it leaves behind a tantalizing hope that its author will yet return to the retelling of Irish lore, though she has not added to this series since 1997.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Minister Without Portfolio

I've been thinking about the fact that in some countries—mainly ones run by a Parliament headed by a Prime Minister—there is often a cabinet position known as Minister Without Portfolio.

So I asked myself: What could be the responsibilities of the Minister Without Portfolio? And I answered myself: Why, his only responsibility is to abstain from possessing a portfolio.

Then I asked myself: How does one measure the effectiveness of a Minister Without Portfolio? To which I answered myself: One should perform random, surprise searches of said Minister's office, and if at any time a portfolio is discovered in his possession, he is to be sacked at once.

Eliot Hawthorne Maguire

by George Eliot
Recommended Ages: 13+

Many times in my book-reviewing career, I have dubbed a particular book "the best novel I have read this year," or at least "the best novel since the last time I named something the best book I had read lately." But somehow there has never come a time when I felt compelled to acknowledge a work as "the best novel I have ever read in my life." Until now. I do not say this lightly, and nor do I qualify it by saying something about it being merely "the best novel by a woman author" (for George Eliot is but the pen-name of Mary Anne/Marian Evans, 1819–1880). In a 2007 Time magazine poll of 125 authors it was listed as the tenth-best book in world literature; but though I have read only half of the books on that top-ten list, I would put Middlemarch above almost any of them. And I say "almost" only because Shakespeare's Hamlet is on there at No. 6—and that hardly counts as a novel, does it? I have read three of the other certifiable novels on that list (War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby) and while I love them all, I also own that they are flawed masterpieces. Middlemarch, however, is flawless. It is a breathtaking, wonderful, hugely impressive work of art; and it is also, at the same time, an intimately engaging, enjoyable piece of entertainment. I never read a novel that I both enjoyed so much and came away from feeling so enriched.

This book is amazing. It abounds in intelligent detail and psychological insight. Its canvas (as becometh a Victorian novel) is filled with a wide variety of finely observed, deeply complex characters whom the narrator addresses with a combination of ironic wit and touching compassion. It balances several interweaving plot lines with unfaltering deftness. It dramatizes the death of romantic fantasies and the ways in which different people come to grips with the disappointing reality, and it does so in such a way that your hopes for the main characters keep you clutching the ears of the book in suspense until the perfectly-timed climax, very near the end of the book. It has characters you will cherish in your heart for a long time, characters you will pity in spite of their foibles, characters to whom you will want to give a smart shake, characters from whom you will shrink in disgust, and several characters who will make you laugh almost every time they open their mouths, but each one remains true to him- or herself as a character.

I looked over Wiki's synopsis of this book before beginning my review, mainly so that I could tell how to spell the characters' names correctly. The reason for this is that I "read" this book via the audio-CD edition narrated by Kate Reading who, besides having the name for this sort of thing, sustained a magnificent performance as the entire cast of characters throughout 26 long disks. So, before I go on, I would like to recommend Ms. Reading's recording to anyone who is dithering over the commitment of reading such a substantial novel. She does better than to make it painless. Her reading of the book bears witness to a keen understanding of the text, the time, and the motivations of all the characters. Naturally, as though effortlessly, she leads the listener into a similar understanding, and an even better appreciation of a novel that is already as excellent as it has any right to be.

Another reason I mention the Wiki synopsis is that I was surprised to see an interpretation of the book quite different from the one I had formed in my mind. I was going to say that Middlemarch, while focusing equal sympathy on its male and female characters, is something of a Girl Power novel. What impresses me about it, in retrospect, is the variety of ways it depicts the power or powerlessness of English gentlewomen in the early 1830s, each according to her particular circumstances, to make herself, the men in her life, and other people happy or unhappy, successful or otherwise. It wasn't easy for women then to accomplish what they wished, even if they had independent resources. And while this novel, like many of its kind, builds drama and suspense on the question whether one or more couples will find married happiness together, Middlemarch also depicts in sometimes painful detail the process by which two married couples fall out of love with each other, or come to realize that getting married was a mistake. And, perhaps heartbreakingly, it lets some of its characters continue in their errors without ever learning their lesson.

The main characters are worth at least a few words of introduction. The novel focuses mainly on three women, upon whose ability or inability to give and receive happiness so much depends. First there is Dorothea Brooke: a religiously devout heiress who chooses the wrong husband out of some idea of noble self-sacrifice, only to be plagued by her husband's unjust jealousy and suspicion even after his death. Eventually she might find love with her first husband's cousin Will—if only she can get around the social prejudices and the codicil in her husband's will which stand in her way. Then there is Rosamond Vincy: the perfect, polished, poised young lady who expects wealth, prestige, and indulgence in having her own way when she marries an ambitious young medical doctor of good birth. When she finds out that things may be otherwise, Rosamund proves to be a shallow, cold woman, incapable of feeling for anyone but herself. In contrast to these two suffocating marriages is the union of plain, sensible Mary Garth and her over-educated beau (Rosamond's brother Fred), who for the longest time seems incapable of settling down to a responsible career.

What keeps these lovers apart, or brings them together, or promises to trap them in a miserable mistake of a marriage (as the case may be), is a complex web of circumstances including, but not limited to: a surprise in an old widower's will; a blackmailing, sponging vagabond named Raffles (no relation to the famous gentleman thief by that name); a young man who has been done out of an inheritance on both sides of his family; a pious old banker with a shameful secret in his past; a kindly bachelor clergyman who helps another man win the woman he himself wants to woo; a ludicrous and sometimes infuriating old gentleman's attempt to run for Parliament; and finally, an interview between two women who have both spent the previous night crying over the same man. In that climactic scene, the whole future happiness of the two people you most want to see together at the end depends on whether or not the most despicable person in the story will find it in her self-interest to do the one decent act of her life. Though, really, the outcome of that decision is probably determined by the other woman's heroic act of self-mastery... But if I say any more, you might understand me, and then why would you need to read the book?

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, the seventh of eight novels completed by George Eliot, was published in serial form in 1871–72, and published in its entirety in 1874. Even if you can't find it in audio format, you should have no difficulty finding a copy in print at either a bookstore or library. You can even buy the e-reader edition for $0.00, a deal in any economy! This novel will never go out of print—not just because it's a "literary classic", but because it is so undeniably good. Once you begin to read it, I think you will understand what I mean.

The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the Puritan colony of Salem, Massachusetts, sometime in the 1640s, a young woman whose husband had sent her ahead to prepare the way for him bears a child, obviously not his. Shrewd enough to subtract nine from the number of months Hester Prynne has been in town, the religious and civic elders know this—but not who the father is. Partly out of leniency (because they do not know whether Hester's husband is even alive), and partly to shame her into revealing the name of her partner in sin, these elders sentence the young adulteress not to death or imprisonment, but to a unique humiliation. For the rest of her life, she is to wear the Scarlet Letter ("A" for Adultery) on her breast, and after her death it is to be the epitaph on her grave.

So begins Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel in which the religious legalism of his Puritan ancestors appears as an object of psychological horror. And though the social stigma that Hester bears proves, indeed, to be a blight on her womanhood, the person who really suffers the most, both mentally and physically, is her lover. We first see the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale on the day Hester stands before the pillory trembling beneath the scornful gaze of every eye in Salem. Dimmesdale, speaking as Hester's kindly pastor, begs her to denounce the father of her child so that he may be brought to repentance as well. Ironically, it is Dimmesdale whose lack of repentance works on his mind and health for the next seven years, until he can bear it no longer. Just as ironically, Dimmesdale's frailty and self-hatred give his ministry a glow of special sacredness, like one too good for this world and yet so down-to-earth that he can relate to the lowest person.

The minister's popularity only adds to his misery, his sense of unworthiness. But though he needs no help feeling wretched, he has it. His housemate and personal physician, the deformed Roger Chillingworth, is actually Hester Prynne's vengeful husband—a secret known only to her, and kept by her under a terrible threat. When Hester finally realizes how Chillingworth is haunting Dimmesdale to death, she tries to convince the clergyman to run away with her. But there can be no escape from the tragic doom of being publicly branded with their sin.

Many young people have been forced to read this book by some schoolteacher, and have perhaps hated it as a result. I was never forced to read it, so I came to it later in life and thought the world of it. I listened to an audio-book of it during a long road trip with my father, who fondly remembered having read it many years ago. We both shared many a sidelong glance of pleasure, and several chuckles at Hawthorne's witty way of describing things. That wit is just enough to lighten an otherwise heavy tale of guilt, revenge, and mental anguish—a tale of deeply personal pain, despair, and religious doubt amid an historic experiment in combining civil politics with the discipline of a strictly moralizing religious sect.

The Scarlet Letter is a tale that could provoke thought and discussion among groups of any religious persuasion, especially those who distinguish between "law and gospel." It is a story (I know this by experience) that could resonate with the uncertainties of anyone aspiring to be a servant of the church, and perhaps a cautionary tale for those responsible to care for the souls of others. It gives sympathy to religious and social nonconformists, and perhaps even prophesies the modern feminist movement. Written in 1850 (about the same time as Moby-Dick, which was dedicated to Hawthorne) by a descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, it tantalizingly foreshadows that hysteria with a spooky hint, or perhaps more than a hint, of witchcraft and the dark arts. It exercises the reader's ability to guess the truth without being directly told, and it beautifully demonstrates the possibility that a story's ending can be completely satisfying without being completely happy or sad. Readers impressed by the remarkable qualities of this, Hawthorne's best-known novel, may be interested in his other novels—The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun—his short stories, of which the most popular collection seems to be Twice-Told Tales; and his two books of Greek myths adapted for children: A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales.

by Gregory Maguire
Recommended Ages: 10+

I have long hesitated to enter the unique fantasy world of the author of the Wicked series, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and Mirror, Mirror. Because of some disturbing buzz about the author's general approach to fairy-tale fantasy, and my disgust with some other authors' experiments along the same line, I thought it wise to let this popular bandwagon put a bit more distance behind it before deciding whether to jump on. In the meantime, a bargain-basement copy of this children's book featuring a "rogue tooth fairy" found its way onto my bookshelf, and my concerns about Maguire's other titles didn't seem to apply to it. So, at last, I cracked it open and peeked inside.

What I found was a delightful story about a newborn skibberee named What-the-Dickens (don't ask), who first opens his eyes upon the inside of a discarded tuna can, and forms his first ideas while being chased by a nasty cat named McCavity and dangled by a mother bird over the gaping beaks of her nestlings. How What-the-Dickens survives these perils, how he penetrates the clannish and fiercely territorial society of the skibbereen (a.k.a. tooth fairies), and how his nighttime adventure with a pretty, probationary Agent of Change named Pepper changes the lives of everyone in Pepper's colony—plus a terrifying old lady, a captive tiger, and a lonely little boy—are all part of a story a young man named Gage tells to his even younger cousins Zeke, Dinah, and Rebecca Ruth one terrifying night when a hurricane seems to have swept their parents, and the rest of the world, clean away.

The story Gage tells is an intelligent story, full of wonder and humor and touching humanity. When he is done telling it, the story leaves questions that an intelligent reader or listener (like Dinah, for example) may ask, but will have to be satisfied with not knowing the answer. In a similar way, the framing story of what has become, or will become, of Dinah's parents and the region they live in, will leave you with unanswered questions. Thus this story makes an interesting point about stories in general: as satisfying and convincing as they may be—as willing as you may be to believe in them—their relationship with reality is at best a mystery. And though each story may have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, if you think beyond those boundaries, you must face uncertainties—such as: Is there really such a thing as a happy ending? When real life moves on after the supposed happy ending of a story, does it necessarily stay happy? Or does that depend on the people living that life, and on what they make of it?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Brontë Brontë Butcher Hardy Hawthorne Trollope

Agnes Grey
by Anne Brontë
Recommended Ages: 12+

The youngest of the three literary Brontë sisters lived only 29 years (1820-1849) before succumbing to tuberculosis, a family tradition that had already claimed all but one of her five siblings. Besides a good deal of poetry, Anne Brontë wrote two novels: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—shocking in its time for its unflinching depiction of a woman fleeing her abusive drunk of a husband and making a new life for herself and her child, in defiance of the day's social conventions and marriage laws—and this. Agnes Grey, her first novel, is almost completely autobiographical and reveals some of the intense feelings and difficult experiences its gentle young author had coped with during several years of working as a governess.

The reality of what Anne lived through was probably even more painful than what befalls the fictitious Agnes. Though her career as a governess was more successful than those of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, like Agnes, Anne was held accountable for the behavior of her unruly young charges without being given the authority to discipline them. If at times the book comes across as a Methodist religious tract, it may be because in real life, the author underwent deep spiritual struggles and maintained her noted calm only by the strength of her faith. Saddest of all, the young curate (assistant pastor) with whom Agnes finally finds love and happiness is, most likely, based on a real-life curate for whom Anne cherished a secret love, but who died before his time.

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë each submitted their first novels for publication at the same time. Emily's one and only novel became a literary classic. Charlotte's first of what would eventually be four completed novels did not see daylight until after its author's death, though the follow-up Jane Eyre immediately established her as the greatest of the sister authors. By comparison, Agnes Grey enjoyed modest success; and though Anne's second novel was a smash hit, surviving sister Charlotte forbade it to be reprinted during her lifetime. And so Anne Brontë has languished somewhat in the shadow of her more accomplished siblings. Nevertheless, Anne's reputation is making a comeback as the equal of Emily and Charlotte, and even this book—though very simple, direct, and untroubled by the emotional turbulence of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—is now recognized as one of the classic English novels. It has the attractive virtue of lying lightly in the hands, being easy and quick to read. The audio-book version in which I experienced it required only six CDs: the equivalent of a couple of days' commute and a comfortable evening listening at home.

And while I'm not a Methodist and could have done without the passages of thinly veiled polemic, I enjoyed Anne's story. I found the heroine admirable, and the author even more so, because neither of them has the fault of saying aloud (or claiming to have said) everything she thought of saying whether at the time or later. Agnes, and I take it Anne also, was rather the type of young lady who held her tongue when she knew that saying what was in her mind would do no good. Perhaps this makes the book a let-down for readers in search of finger-snapping, histrionic tellings-off and scenes of operatic melodrama. No opera will ever be made from this book, soap or otherwise. But you come to the end of Agnes Grey's gentle adventure feeling kindly toward her, because she has been so kind, and sighing with satisfaction because (even if only in fantasy) it has ended as happily for her as she deserves. And you appreciate the wisdom in her particular happiness because she admits, more than the average novel heroine does, that she and her loved ones will face change, and age, and death, and grief in the future... but they are prepared to meet it all.

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Brontë
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is only known novel by the middle of the three celebrated Brontë sisters, who died at age 30 only a year after it was published in 1847. The rumor that Emily was putting final touches on a second novel adds a tragic mystery to the world of arts and letters, right up beside Beethoven's Tenth Symphony and the lost episodes of Doctor Who. This is especially frustrating since Wuthering Heights has been argued more and more to be the greatest of the seven novels completed by the Brontë sisters, Jane Eyre notwithstanding. It has been the subject of three operas, a graphic novel, and numerous film adaptations, including versions set in Mexico, Japan, and a California high school.

My advice, however, is to accept no substitute for the Yorkshire moors of the original. No other setting could so perfectly embody the haunting, horrifying, operatically tragic destiny of nearly every speaking character in this book. In the opening paragraphs, the author explains the meaning of the word "wuthering" as a reference to the violent atmospheric disturbances among the high, heather-tufted moors, where a dark figure like Heathcliff can well be imagined roaming in the night, tormented by his doomed love for the headstrong Cathy, a torment which finally proves to be the only—and I mean only—redeeming feature of an otherwise scandalously cruel and almost unremittingly vicious monster. It is a setting ripe for a tale of ruined hopes, restless ghosts, perverted passions, fevers that prey on body and mind, and Calvinistically merciless manners and sentiments. It is the only conceivable site for a story in which the near-complete destruction of two generations of a pair of families can arise inevitably from one eavesdropping youth overhearing but the first half of a conversation, before slipping off into the night with unjust bitterness poisoning his heart.

And it is an astonishing work of literary genius, considering that its author was outlived by her masculine pen-name Ellis Bell, so short was her life and career. Despite this, the middle Brontë sister told her tale by way of a daring yet strikingly successful experiment in narrative structure. If, like me, you take in an audio-book edition of this novel, you will immediately understand. The version I listened to required two narrators, one of each sex. This is because the first-person narrative by Mr. Lockwood provides only an introduction, a few transitional passages, and a conclusion. Under this proscenium arch, if I may speak so—and this book is nothing if not an exquisite piece of theater—the main part of the drama unfolds in the words of co-narrator Ellen "Nelly" Dean, who bears a complex relationship to the characters in her tale and even, in her well-meaning way, may have influenced their fates. Be her account as reliable or unreliable as it may, it also encloses passages narrated to her (either orally or in writing) by at least two other characters. Emily B. could have continued this experiment in nesting narrators, like matryoshka dolls, to any number of levels, had she wished. Fussy book-editors may despair of ever getting the number of quotation marks right, but when read aloud (especially by one male and one female actor), it seems altogether clear. And somehow, by howsoever many narrators the events may be removed from us, the whole gut-twisting, hair-pulling, hand-wringing awfulness of the tale seems always to be immediately before the reader, or as close as any drama can be whose actors face us across the gulf of death.

All you need to know about what happens in the book is that rough-and-tumble Heathcliff (that's his whole name, by the way) conceives a hopeless love for his foster-sister Cathy Earnshaw, of the Wuthering Heights Earnshaws, and runs away when he realizes that she can never marry him even if she loves him back. Instead, Cathy marries nice guy Edgar Linton, the heir of the hard-to-pronounce Thrushcross Grange (you try saying it without pausing to aim the "sh" at the right syllable), who loves her tenderly but lacks half the manliness of, well, his wife. When Heathcliff comes back from wherever he's been, the bad blood between him and Edgar vexes Cathy so much that she dies of it, leaving both men heartbroken and a baby daughter motherless. Through one fiendish scheme after another—or rather, all of them at once—Heathcliff contrives to: (a) steal the heart of Edgar's sister Isabella, whom he violently abuses until she runs away; (b) prey on Cathy Sr.'s brother Hindley until Wuthering Heights, complete with Hindley's heir Hareton, belongs to Heathcliff body and soul; (c) terrorize his delicate, weak-willed son to death; (d) coerce Cathy Jr. into marrying Heathcliff Jr. so that he can gain control of the Linton estate; and (e) rule his household in such a way as to reduce Hareton and Cathy Jr.—the last surviving Earnshaw and Linton, respectively—to a state of inhuman savagery. From Lockwood's point of view, he isn't a very genial landlord either.

Whether Heathcliff finally succeeds in all of his grim aims hardly matters, since he succeeds in enough of them to make this book one all-but-ceaseless parade of misery, ruin, and death. One would think it impossible to sympathize with a character like that. Yet, from an early enough page that the narrator's voice belongs to Lockwood, one is also captivated by the tragic aspect of Heathcliff's character, expressed in the unforgettable scene where, believing himself unobserved, the gruff villain leans out the window of Cathy's girlhood bedroom and pleads with her ghost:
"Come in! come in!" he sobbed. "Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more! Oh! My heart's darling, hear me this time—Catherine, at last!"
Somehow, in spite of all the fear and loathing on the high moors, this story comes across as one of the great love stories—a heartstring-tugging potboiler in which the most potent female presence spends the majority of the book in her grave, while another generation works out what might have been between her and the wicked, doomed, vile, yet ultimately pitiable Heathcliff. That such a story idea could actually work, and even become one of the great works of English literature, seems so improbable that I wouldn't blame you for doubting my word. Read it to believe it!

Furies of Calderon
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this first book of a series titled "Codex Alera," Dresden Files author Jim Butcher builds a fascinating, original fantasy world filled with non-stop suspense, intrigue, and action, all powered by a unique form of magic. And although the adventure is shared by an ensemble cast, one character who appears in less than half of the book promises to become the driving force for the series to follow: a boy named Tavi who, in defiance of the standard fantasy-hero job description, seems to be the only human being in his world who can't do magic! Tavi must live by his wits, his courage, and his heroic instinct to put the needs of others before his own, if he is going to achieve the great destiny whereat this book mysteriously hints.

The world of Alera is like and unlike our own. It is difficult to say exactly how the two worlds might be related. There is one fleeting hint, in the middle of this novel, that humans came to Alera from "another place" so long ago that their previous history, like their oldest surviving stone inscriptions, has worn away beyond recovery. Some of their places have names similar to geographical entities in our world, such as Aquitaine. The names of many characters, the Latin derivation of many of their words, and the general structure of their society seem to bespeak a familiarity with the ancient Romans. Their culture also seems to have assimilated Freudian psychology (since one character makes a crack about another's "ego"), to say nothing of present-day bumper-sticker slogans such as "What part of _____ didn't you understand?" Yet the savage humanoid species surrounding Aleran territory do not seem to be of this Earth. So this may be a world whose distant past overlaps with our world's distant future, and the Alerans may be the descendants of space-travelers from Earth. Or this may simply be a fantasy-world analogue of the Roman Empire.

One of the ways the world of Alera differs from our world is the number of intelligent races that dwell in it. Besides the human Alerans, there are the neighboring Canim and the Icemen (only mentioned in this book), the savage Marat warriors, and a race of giant waxy spiders, each occupying territory adjacent to Alera and held off by either natural barriers or defenses like the Shieldwall. But what will probably strike you most about this strange world is the way each Aleran is attuned to one or more of the elements of nature—earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal—by communicating directly with the "furies," or invisible spirits who inhabit those elements and bring them to life for those who control them. So an air-crafter can fly, see over great distances, and manipulate the airflow around himself. Water-crafters can sense other people's emotions, using the fluids in and around their bodies to hurt or heal them. Fire-crafters can manipulate not only fire but also people's feelings. Wood-crafters can create illusions that allow them to slip by you unseen; and so on.

So it's obvious that young Tavi, the only Aleran anyone can remember ever reaching the age of fifteen without coming into his furies, has a big disadvantage to compensate for. And it's a dangerous time to be a farm-boy in the Calderon Valley regardless. A treasonous plot is afoot, a plot to overthrow the First Lord of Alera, a plot which will begin by throwing one High Lord's forces in with a Marat horde to destroy the legion garrison that guards the entrance to the valley, and then to wipe out the Steadholts (groups of farms under the protection of a leader known as a Steadholder) that populate the valley. A young woman named Amara, who has just qualified as a Cursor (something between a postal carrier and an intelligence agent), learns of this plot at about the same time as Tavi. Amara spots the plot during her graduation exercise from the Academy, when her own mentor is revealed as a traitor to the First Lord. Tavi stumbles on it by chance while trying to correct an error in his apprenticeship as a shepherd to his steadholder uncle Bernard, when the two of them are attacked by a Marat hordemaster while trying to round up a herd of sheep.

Next thing they know, the people of the Steadholts are in the middle of it, and Tavi and Amara have saved each other's lives, and a world already full of wild dangers and barely restrained conflict breaks open into a bloodbath between a rampaging horde and an ill-prepared army. Fury-crafting farm folk go up against treacherous knights. A vile slaver's inhuman methods bring together as allies two woman who would otherwise be enemies. Supernaturally gifted swordsmen duel in the middle of a colossal battle. Vicious creatures, such as the giant flightless birds known as herdbane, fight alongside their barbarian buddies. A half-witted slave with his face disfigured by a brand of cowardice shows himself to be more than he seems. An autumn-spring romance blossoms in the midst of a beleaguered fort. And one furyless boy, with a surplus of cleverness and nerve, holds his own in a trial of wits against remorseless creatures that can see body heat and whose victims often survive for weeks while being digested alive.

Tavi's ability to do the seemingly impossible without the benefit of magic may turn the tide of a devastating battle that, alas, is probably only the beginning of the troubles to follow in the further books of Codex Alera. Their titles, to-date, are: Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury. The second-most amazing thing about this series is the fact (related in an interview with author Butcher) that he wrote it in response to a bet that he couldn't create a good story based on a lame idea. The most amazing thing, however, is that lame or not, this fantasy-action novel is brilliant from its bottom-most concept to the exciting wealth of detail on its surface. Breathlessly paced, masterfully structured to keep the tension bowstring-taut, it draws the reader in so completely that I, for one, could not hold back from cheering the characters on aloud at several points—"Go, Tavi!" here, "Do it, Amara!" there, etc. It is one of the few books I have read that makes the word "Doomed!" a laugh line; for in spite of the gravitational pressure an author must feel while imagining a new world into being, Jim Butcher is never so far from his roots as the creator of a wise-cracking wizard that he forgets to lighten the mixture with a judicious measure of comic relief. If you can swing it, I recommend the audio-book narrated by Kate Reading (she whose performance of Middlemarch changed my world)—but my enjoyment of this book was so great that I couldn't wait for an audiobook of Academ's Fury and started right in on the paperback. I'll gladly risk the eye-strain, just to find out what happens next!

The Mayor of Casterbridge
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+

In one of his "Jeeves and Wooster" stories, humorist P. G. Wodehouse lightheartedly lists some top examples of men with a lot of brains. The four men he names are Napoleon, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy. Even accounting for the silliness of the context, that is a testament to the seriousness of Hardy's reputation. And this ever-so-serious book is widely taken to be one of Hardy's greatest masterpieces. As it is only the third book by Hardy that I have read, I cannot speak to that. I can only bear witness that it is a fascinating book depicting (as its subtitle says) "the life and death of a man of character"—and as to what sort of character the man has, that is what will keep your eyeballs glued to the book from first page to last.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragedy bound by most of the classical unities. Though the story spans nearly thirty years, most of it takes place within six or seven years of the final act. Scenes are spread out across the width of the fictional English county of Wessex, approximately where Dorset lies in reality; but most of it takes place within the city limits of Casterbridge, a commercial and agricultural center with emphasis on the latter. The action revolves around a handful of characters, and unfolds with a dreadful sense of inevitability. The "man of character" named in the title rises in station from a farm laborer, specializing in trussing hay, to become a prosperous corn merchant and mayor of the town—only to descend back to the state where he began, and perhaps lower still. He owes his ascent primarily to a vow he took at the age of 21 years to touch no liquor for as many years again. And he owes his downfall to the secrets, lies, and flaws in his character (such as jealousy and impulsiveness) which are revealed one by one, until everything he values is either destroyed or taken from him.

The man in question is named Michael Henchard, and his history (as far as this book is concerned) begins when, as a very poor, low-spirited, down-and-out farm laborer, he goes on a drunk and impulsively sells his wife and infant daughter to the highest bidder. When he wakes up the next morning, he repentantly tries to track down his family, only to find they have emigrated somewhere with a sailor named Newson. After this discovery, Henchard makes his oath of sobriety, moves to Casterbridge, and begins his climb. Fast-forward nineteen years, and we find Susan Newson, presumed a widow since her husband's ship foundered at sea, arriving at Casterbridge with her sweet-natured daughter Elizabeth-Jane to find the husband who sold her at the top of his career. When Henchard realizes who they are, he tries to put the family back together without revealing the exact circumstances that separated them (even Elizabeth-Jane doesn't know, at first). But Susan isn't the only woman Henchard has done wrong, and meanwhile she has secrets of her own, and Henchard's young Scottish protegé Donald Farfrae begins to excite the mayor's jealousy, and the other woman (a flighty number named Lucetta) arrives in town to set the wheels of destiny spinning at an even more dangerous level, and a rival of Farfrae's tosses his own bit of vengeful monkey-business into the works, and what with scandal and alienation and financial ruin and death flying about in all directions, things soon get quite out of control.

Least of all can Henchard control himself, continuing even after his downfall to invent new lies and secrets, driven by his insecurity and almost paranoid jealousy, sometimes not even knowing himself what he is doing. Sensations of despair and loneliness, even an impulse toward self-destruction, gather about him as each attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of those he cares about sinks him deeper in disgrace. When you think he has sunk as low as he can, there are still chapters to go. By this time you have learned what to expect, and face it with a peculiar kind of suspense in which you know pretty well what is going to happen, and dread it, but cannot look away.

Getting back together with Susan proves to be the easy part. The downward rush of the tragedy begins when, the very day he acknowledges Elizabeth-Jane "Newson" as his own daughter, he learns by the dead hand of Susan that she is actually Newson's daughter, succeeding to the name after the death of Henchard's own Elizabeth-Jane. At the very moment when Elizabeth-Jane is beginning to accept the lie that Henchard is her real father, Henchard's love toward her seems inexplicably to die. She does not even learn the truth when Newson shows up, alive and well, to claim his daughter—thanks to another lie, the most audacious in Henchard's long career. But one by one, Henchard's deceptions and concealments come home to roost. His recklessness, spurred by bitter jealousy, ruins him. His stepdaughter, spurred by Henchard's strangeness toward her, accepts Lucetta's invitation to be her lady companion, only to get caught up in yet another web of seduction and deceit. The resentments of a blackmailing betrayer named Jopp come together with a lowlife local hazing custom to sow death and destruction among the main characters, made even more tragic by the distrust of Henchard that Farfrae feels after the two men wrestle almost to the death.

So, like The Princess Bride, it has romance, and vendettas, and sports, and even a miracle (or rather, a macabre coincidence that somehow saves Henchard from suicide). And, of interest to Harry Potter fans, it explains the meanings of the words "dumbledore" and "hagrid" within the same paragraph, and later alludes to "alastor" besides. Could this be a clue to where J. K. Rowling found the names for her well-known characters? I'm sure this is no news to the crowd that has memorized every public interview J. K. R. has ever given. That she should have read Hardy's work is unsurprising, but probably doesn't bear significantly on her own work. For the magic of this story consists in the way Hardy's beautiful prose, concentration of thought, and instinct for dramatic shape carry the reader relentlessly beyond, far beyond, and still farther beyond, the point where the inexorable unwinding of the skein of tragedy becomes uncomfortable to witness, drawing you at last to the novel's bleak ending where it philosophically concludes that "happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." It's a melancholy thought at the end of a book that sometimes gives real pain. And yet reading it has been a great pleasure: a fact that explains what I meant when I called this "a fascinating book," and that lends the ring of truth to Wodehouse's tribute to the genius of Thomas Hardy.

The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended Ages: 12+

This Gothic romance, enrolled by some critics (including H. P. Lovecraft) among the early masterpieces of "weird fiction," appeared in 1851. And though its credentials as a classic of American literature may stifle your eagerness to read it—for it does sound like the sort of book your schoolteacher might make you read—it has a lot in it to make the Harry Potter Generation perk up and take notice. It has a century-old curse, an alleged wizard from a family suspected of harboring magical arts, a hint of ghosts and of other supernatural occurrences, a strangely animated painting, some gruesome deaths, and a touch of madness. It is based on a house that actually existed (and still does), and a family ditto (though they never lived in that house). And it is told by an author about whom you probably knew nothing except that he wrote The Scarlet Letter and was matey-matey with Herman Melville (like, yawn), and so you may be pleasantly surprised to find his writing marked by both sparkling wit and a knack for creating torturous suspense.

There is, to be sure, a semblance of Melville about his writing, too. For example, one chapter describes in minute detail how a dead body stays dead throughout a long day and an even longer night. By the next morning, when a succession of characters fails to avail themselves of the opportunity to discover the corpse, your nerves are as well-tuned as a mandolin string. The most ghastly thing about this passage is the cold-blooded tone of droll whimsy that Hawthorne maintains right through it.

But gratifying your taste for the macabre isn't the only thing this novel is good for. It also tells a story of love redeeming a family from a curse that has dogged it for generations, a curse brought on by their own hereditary tendency to grasp at that which rightfully belongs to another. It tells how love heals a feud between two families that have done each other wrong for over a hundred years, beginning with a covetous old colonel who sent his rival to the gallows during the Salem witch trails—whether guilty or not, one can never be sure—only to see a disputed property claim resolved in his favor. It tells how a tradition of bloody death, sometimes hard to distinguish from murder, gets tangled up with a family's thwarted ambitions for great wealth, the gloom of a haunted drawing-room, the broken mind of a sensitive man undone by injustice, the heartbreak of his ugly but devoted sister, the strange art form of a photographer (or, in Hawthorne's language, "daguerrotypist") who specializes in capturing his subjects' true nature on film, the hypocrisy of a prominent and respected citizen, and the transforming inward and outward beauty of a girl named Phoebe Pyncheon, which makes it possible for her family to escape from a cycle of tragedy and guilt.

Hawthorne's preface to this novel suggests that its moral has something to do with the sin of the ancestors being visited upon their descendants. There is something particularly gloomy in the way this theme overshadows the strange house in which genteel poverty shares blood-room with savage greed. Current author Thomas Pynchon, whose family name is smeared by this book, could perhaps make a case against the fortune this novel has made in doing so, if it weren't for the fact that the witch-hunting, sin-haunted family Hawthorne really had in mind was his own. Don't expect me to speculate as to where the line between fact and fancy falls within this book. Rather, enjoy the extra buzz of creepiness that comes from knowing that the line is hidden in there somewhere, like the deed that would have made the Pyncheon family as rich as kings, but for the guilt of their family sin and the retribution—perhaps divine, perhaps diabolical—that followed it. Moral or no, that's entertainment!

Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite
by Anthony Trollope
Recommended Ages: 13+

I wanted to read Trollope's Barsetshire novels, a highly-recommended series of six books satirizing the diet and habits of the upper classes mid-19th-century Britain. But when I sought audio-CD editions of Trollope's works among the holdings of the Saint Louis County Library, I found only this book. I reckoned one must start somewhere, so I let this book initiate me into the vast writings (47 novels!) of an author who influenced, and was admired by, George Eliot, W. H. Auden, and other writers down to the present day. I came to it expecting a piece of lacy-collared satire featuring rich and genteel folk of character ranging from endearingly silly to contemptible, curled around a romance in which the happy couple lives (more or less) happily ever after. Ye gods, was I in for a surprise!

This 1871 novel is, in fact, a piece of tragedy whose ending, if you don't mind my spoiling it for you, may leave you desolate. Forewarned is forearmed. Author Trollope (1815-1882) carries his dramatic argument forward with single-minded intensity, unrelieved by subplots or comic relief—unless the reader chooses to take the caricature of a Jewish moneylender as an outlet for pent-up feelings and nervous laughter. The whole business seems to unfold with dreadful inevitability. And though the main characters are driven by a variety of motivations and priorities, as the situation develops between them their thoughts always seem to be turning over the same handful of problems, caught between the same dilemmas, until even these people—though they may be ever so rich, powerful, clever, or good—seem trapped in a doom from which they can do nothing to escape.

The problem begins when Sir Harry Hotspur and his wife Elizabeth bury their only son, who was to inherit both the family title and its considerable property. Now the estate must go to their lovely but strong-willed daughter Emily, while the title (if it will go on at all) will pass to a young second-cousin named George Hotspur. Sir Harry can't resist the idea that it would be nice to keep the land and the family name together, even if it means marrying Emily to her cousin George. But inviting George to Humblethwaite proves, in the long run, to be the fatal step from which the extinction of the noble house of Hotspur must finally result. A vague suspicion that Cousin George might not be quite respectable grows, the more Sir Harry and his lawyer discover the facts, into a conviction that Emily must never marry George. But by this time, she has given her heart to him as an irrevocable gift. She swears that she will never love or marry anyone else, and sticks to her vow even as the evidence against George's fitness to marry her becomes overwhelming.

Although a "happily ever after" ending seems at least remotely possible almost to the last, no such ending comes. When George is first described, he is observed to be still savable; but he isn't saved. He isn't saved, even though Emily Hotspur exerts all of her considerable power to save him, and cows her doting father into making the effort himself; but each time the young rascal seems to be almost within reach of a rescuing hand, he falls deeper into degradation. It isn't just that he has gotten into debt by betting on horses and playing at cards; nor is it just that he has obtained fraudulent credit by selling his army commission to two moneylenders at the same time; nor is it just that he has already promised to marry an actress from whom he has also accepted money as a last resort; the tale of George's iniquity goes even deeper than that. His style of living might have gone over all right on the American frontier of that period, but where the honor and happiness of a young gentlewoman were concerned—to say nothing of the Hotspur family name and fortune—finally, nothing can be done except to squirm in agony of heart while the hopes of Emily, her parents, George, and his actress friend fade and finally die.

It is such a cruelly, bitterly tragic book that I do not scruple to spoil its ending for you, because I would sooner discourage you from reading it than tamper with your mood. Some people I know and care about might become a danger to themselves after reading such a book. But it is worth reading, if you are up to it. Trollope's narration is full of compassion for its characters, yet it looks with unflinching honesty at such issues as some people's deep, psychological need to survive after death by handing down property and an honorable family name to their heirs; the virtuous woman's sometimes mistaken conviction that a fallen man can, and at any cost must, be raised up again; the responsibilities of a landowner towards his tenants, of wives towards their husbands and vice versa, of parents toward their children and vice versa, of hosts towards their guests and vice versa, and of noblemen toward the honor of their family name; the chances of a dissipated scoundrel being reformed by redemptive love; and whether welcoming a black sheep into the family can lighten his prospects, or darken theirs. What makes Trollope's treatment of these issues so very striking is the fact that he restrains himself from falling into sentimentality, and rather corrects the romantic view of those issues with a brutally bracing realism. And if that doesn't cure one of wanting to read more of Trollope, it will at least cure the idea that he is a literary lightweight.

I can forget about reading more of Trollope's works via audio-books, since the County Library neither holds them nor is interested in buying them, and I can't afford to buy them either. On Kindle, however, I can get loads of them in e-reader format, for free. I foresee myself making much more use of my Kindle the than I have done so far. If you too are interested in more by this author, some noteworthy titles include The Warden (the first of the six Barsetshire novels); Barchester Towers (the second and best-known of ditto); Can You Forgive Her? (the first of the six Palliser novels); and The Way We Live Now (widely regarded as Trollope's masterpiece).

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Chima Gerstein Lake Montgomery

The Demon King
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is the first book of the "Seven Realms" series, by the author of the "Warrior Heir" trilogy. Unlike that earlier trilogy, this story is set not in a magically-enhanced version of our present-day world, but in a fully imagined fantasy world in which wars are fought with horses, bows, swords, and magic. Where both trilogies are alike is that the fate of a whole world rests in the hands of a handful of sexy and highly sexed teenagers. In other words, young adults who have grown up on (and perhaps out of) Harry Potter will take to it like fish to water. For in the Queendom of the Fells, history begins—and could very easily end—with a reckless romance between two beautiful young people: a queen from a long line of rulers of the indigenous vale folk, and a wizard from a magically-gifted race of conquerors from the north.

As a result of the "breaking" of the world some thousand years ago, these wizards are now sworn enemies of the upland clan whose "green magic," in tune with the Spirit Mountains themselves, includes the fashioning of powerful amulets the wizards need to focus their power. In the thousand years since the Breaking, these three peoples—wizard, vale, and clan—have lived together in an uneasy peace, mediated by a covenant called the Naéming. According to this law, the queen of the Fells can never again marry a wizard. Wizards, no longer able to rule, are instead magically bound to serve and protect the line of queens. They are also forbidden to trespass on the high ground held by the clan-folk. The latter, in turn, continue to supply the wizards with the amulets they need to work magic, but with a built-in catch: these amulets lose their power over time, so that the wizards depend on the goodwill of the clan to keep them supplied.

These rules are meant to keep the Breaking from happening again. But now there are ominous signs that the wizards may be gathering their nerve for a grab at power. From the point of view of young Han "Cuffs" Alister—a trader, hunter, medicinal-herb-gatherer, booze smuggler, sometime street hood, and all-around misfit who doesn't know what to make of himself or the silver cuffs he has worn on his wrists as long as he can remember—the first sign of these new menaces comes in the form of an amulet older than the Breaking or the Naéming. He robs it off an underage wizard named Micah Bayar, whose father is the most powerful wizard in the queendom. Micah has been using this powerful and illegal artifact without permission, and now Han has it—if only he can figure out what to do with it. He seems to be the last person to figure out that an outbreak of grisly murders is a direct result of his theft of the charm, which Lord Bayar will go to any length to recover. By the time he does realize it, Han has lost those he loves the most, and must face a truth about himself that he would have dreaded knowing if he had even begun to guess it.

Meanwhile, Raisa—the princess heir to the queendom—is approaching her sixteenth name day, when she becomes eligible to marry and to be officially named the next in line for the throne. But the closer she gets to the big day, the more she becomes aware of the growing danger swirling about her: another facet of the Bayar family's plan to overthrow the Naéming and seize power. Their excuse for all this, when they bother to make one, is that the wars between the southern realms may soon spread to the Fells, and a union between the power of the wizards and the throne will be needed to defend their country. But as much as Raisa lusts after the magnetic Micah, she is horrified to learn of her mother's plan to force her to marry him on the very night of her naming feast. This just isn't done—and nor are the tactics used by the Bayars and the queen to keep Raisa's father and the queen's loyal Guard Captain out of the way at this crucial moment.

By the end of this first book, both Raisa and Han are fleeing the Fells with friends, and though separate from each other, they share the same destination. By this time our two protagonists have met only once, and under less than ideal circumstances; yet they are drawn together in a way that suggests that their relationship may prove to be the ultimate test of whether the Fells can survive another Breaking like what happened a thousand years ago. Or, perhaps, they may become useful allies as their country becomes increasingly hard-pressed between foreign enemies and the ambitions of the wizard gentry. The next stages of their fate will be bound up with those of a loyal young guardsman, a clan youth whose magical talents have made him an outcast among his own people, a warrior maiden whose vocation makes her the sworn enemy of those she loves the most, and a charming young wizard who, until now, has been the willing if unwitting instrument of his father's dastardly designs.

Whatever happens next, count on it being fraught with the torments of being a teenager: infatuation, jealousy, the struggle to figure out one's own identity, and the conflict between doing what is right and what feels good. Expect it to be filled with mystery, intrigue, combat, and magic. And, if Chima continues to write at the same high pitch of thrilling entertainment, expect the needle on the fantasy-adventure gauge to get stuck at the high end of the scale. Further books in this series, which was originally planned as a trilogy, include The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, and The Crimson Crown.

The Old Country
by Mordicai Gerstein
Recommended Ages: 9+

This slim book is by a prolific children's author and illustrator whose previous book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, won the 2004 Caldecott Medal and has been adapted into both an animated short film and a ballet. Even so, it would have to be a book of incredible lyricism to top this story, in which a boy's great grandmother tells him how she lived both as a poor peasant girl and as a fox—bushy tail and all—back in the Old Country. The result is a strange, terrible, wonderful, gently touching, yet deeply troubling tale, seemingly universal in its themes but also susceptible to a variety of very specific allegorical interpretations. It could be about something that happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or about something that happened to the Jews under Nazi Germany, or about something that happened in Russia any time in the past few centuries. Or it could be about evils that are at home anywhere, at any time. It is a story about war and genocide, ethnic prejudice and totalitarian oppression, magic and family and pain and love, and the possibility of the world's most powerless people overcoming the malice of the very powerful. It is about what makes people human—and how dumb animals sometimes have more of it than some people.

Gisella's family lived in the Old Country so long ago that no one can be sure what country it is now. One day Gisella's older brother Tavido marches off to war, pledging to fight for his country, even though his family comes from a despised minority group that has no country of its own. While one side of the war rounds up the Crags for extermination and the other side sends them to the front lines unarmed, Gisella gets caught up in a magical adventure involving a thieving fox, a cat with a night-school law degree, and a forest courtroom with a spider judge and a jury of birds. By the time the dust settles, Gisella has swapped bodies with the fox, and her family has joined an exodus of refugees, taking with them the fox in Gisella's body. The poor girl must learn to live as a fox and find a way to save her family, and indeed her whole people, aided only by a dancing bear and a tiny faerie named Quick.

It doesn't seem like she could have much of a chance. Yet chance favors Gisella through a series of encounters with the brutal forces of both sides in the war, a visit to an appalling prison camp, and a peace conference between two monstrous monarchs who are ready to divide up the world between them over a hen that lays golden eggs. How this self-same hen, together with Gisella, her animal friends, her witchy great aunt, and her war-wounded brother, manage to turn the tables for the good of millions, is a feat that will amaze you, and even perhaps move you to tears. But the greatest surprise in the tale is one the great grandmother saves for last, one that made my heart brim full as I turned the last page of this beautiful book.

Readers touched by this book may be interested to know the titles of some of Gerstein's other books, which include Bible-story retellings, alphabets, and a guide for drawing pictures of birds. Wiki lists a number of them, including the interesting-sounding Stop Those Pants, Behind the Couch, and The Shadow of a Flying Bird.

The Coming of Dragons
by A. J. Lake
Recommended Ages: 11+

The shipwreck was caused by a storm. The storm was caused by a dragon, which even in pre-Norman-conquest Britain would be thought beyond belief. And the only two survivors owe their lives to a mysterious chest whose lock has no keyhole.

Nevertheless the girl (the ship master's daughter, named Elspeth) figures out how to open it, though wizards and warriors have long tried and failed to do so. Inside she finds a silver gauntlet which, at her slightest touch, jumps onto her hand and fades into her skin, becoming part of her body. Whenever she needs it, it reappears with a glowing sword in its grip, a sword able to cut through anything. But because of this weapon with a mind of its own, the children are pursued by an evil necromancer and his armed henchmen, hunted by a fire-breathing monster named Torment, and fated to fight the will of an evil god whose only chance to be set free upon the earth—or to be destroyed—now lives in Elspeth's hand.

As for the boy (Edmund, the son of the king of Sussex, traveling incognito), he has a magical gift and burden of his own. He has only now realized that he possesses the power of the Ripente: a hated caste of spies and traitors, distinguished by their ability to see through others' eyes. Edmund also has dreams of the future, and carries the guilt of not acting on them on time when they warned of death and destruction. Edmund fears that he is a coward and a weakling, whereas in fact he throws himself into protecting Elspeth with fearless loyalty. But between fear for his kingly father, not heard of since he went to war against the Danes, and shame about his deep connection with an enemy who shares the same powers, Edmund has a torment of his own, apart from the dragon of that name.

This fast-paced, stormy, scary, and thrilling adventure, set in a pre-Arthurian era of magic and legend, launches the "Darkest Age" trilogy with convincing authority and enervating momentum. I am already saving nickels and dimes for the books that follow it: The Book of the Sword and The Circle of Stone.

Anne of Windy Poplars
by L. M. Montgomery
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this fourth book of the series that began with Anne of Green Gables, the infectiously romantic Anne Shirley devotes her first three years out of college to serving as a high school principal in the small town of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Narrated in part through Anne's letters to her beau Gilbert, who is away at medical school, this career gets off to a rough start owing, in part, to the hostility of the town's ruling family. Thanks to an inadvertent stroke of genius that will surely make you laugh, Anne wins them over (as she wins everyone over) in time to make her stay in Summerside a warm, happy period of teaching, match-making, whimsical adventures, and touching experiences.

Anne looks out for ways to brighten the future of her brightest students, one of whom goes on to become a famous actress, another to discover family he never knew he had. Anne keeps the silly secrets of the two widows who board her and their tough-minded housekeeper Rebecca Dew. Anne brings the unpopular teacher of her school's middle class out of her crabbed, misanthropic shell. Anne spends a night in a house full of ghosts, provides respite care for a manipulative old biddy, saves several marriages from the danger of not happening, fails to prevent one from happening, and brightens the life of a little girl whose dead mother, deadbeat father, and deadly serious grandmother have made her childhood cold and lonely. And she manages all this not simply by being wise and virtuous, but sometimes by being silly and fallible and given to a streak of vanity that makes her endearing precisely because she is imperfect.

The admission is due: This is no great novel, in the sense of a book that holds itself together by the deft weaving of plot threads firmly knotted at the beginning and end of the pattern. Rather, it is a collection of episodes loosely held together by their common setting, their attractive heroine, and the distinct phase they represent in Anne's life. A few slender strands of character development, both among the denizens of Summerside and the folks back home in Avonlea, give the book what additional unity it has; while, at the same time, many of the episodes in Anne's Summerside sojourn involve characters specially introduced for them and scarcely mentioned afterward. It's a far cry from a Dickens novel, in which that master of the form frequently and almost unfalteringly juggled the fates of dozens of characters from one end of a novel to the other.

Yet it is not surprising to read that after Dickens, Maud Montgomery is the most popular author in Canada, and appeals to many readers in the U.S. as well. Her books are wholesome without over-moralizing or becoming bland. They are spiced by wit, romance, nostalgia, and just a drop of melancholy sentimentality. Her heroine is as spirited and quick as she is virtuous and sweet. And while heartbreaking tragedy, conflict, sinister rumors, and creepy atmospherics sometimes come into play, these stories and the world in which they take place partake of an amiable spirit of lightness and grace. And so they offer a very welcome escape from these cynical and broken times.