Thursday, June 25, 2015

Old Bestsellers: A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather

Old Bestsellers: A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather

A review by Rich Horton


One of my secret shames is a habit of introducing myself to great writers I haven't tried by picking really short books. So, for example, George Eliot: I haven't read Middlemarch but I have read Silas Marner and The Lifted Veil. Don De Lillo: I haven't read Underworld but I have read The Body Artist and Cosmopolis. Edith Wharton: not The Age of Innocence but instead Ethan Frome. John Banville: not The Sea but The Newton Letter.

And so when I ran across a copy of A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather, it seemed like a good opportunity to mend another of the many lacunae in my reading, without having to tackle something long like O Pioneers! or My Antonia. And actually this turns out to have been a very worthwhile choice! (And it seems it's a book that is very highly regarded among her oeuvre.)

This blog is about "Old Bestsellers", supposedly, though I often enough violate that rule. Willa Cather, as it turns out, actually enjoyed very good sales for her work; and even once, with Shadows on the Rock, appeared on the Publishers' Weekly list of Bestselling Novels of 1931 (it was third). That's actually not at all one of her better known books. To me it seems that O Pioneers! and My Antonia are very clearly, at this remove, her best-remembered novels; but some will plump for Death Comes for the Archbishop or her Pulitzer-winning One of Ours.

Cather (1873-1947) is regarded as a writer of the American West, particularly the Great Plains, more particularly still Nebraska. She was born in Virginia, but spent many of her formative years in Nebraska, in the town of Red Cloud (close to the Kansas border). She moved back East (to Pittsburgh) as a young woman. As with some other women of about that generation that I've covered (Ivy Compton-Burnett and Octave Thanet for two) she lived for a long time with another woman, and many scholars assume she was a Lesbian, but she did not seem to choose to identify herself as such, and the question of her sexuality is controversial. It's easy enough to explain that reticence as the natural reaction of people to society's prejudices -- and indeed that seems a plausible explanation -- but personal lives are complicated things, so who knows?

Anyway, to A Lost Lady. This is a short book, just a bit over 30,000 words. It was first published in 1923. My copy is from 1945. It's set in Sweet Water, Nebraska, a small town pretty clearly based on Red Cloud. Sweet Water is on the Burlington railroad line (which also runs through my home town of Naperville, IL), and Captain Daniel Forrester is a man in late middle age, retired from building railroads, who owns a beautiful property on the outskirts of town. His second wife, a great deal younger, Marian Forrester, is a striking woman, very fashionable, very sociable, and a great hostess to the men of the railroad that the Captain entertains.

We see snapshots of her over a decade or more, mostly through the eyes of young Niel Herbert, who is smitten with Mrs. Forrester from the age of 10 or so. She seems to him the epitome of womanhood, and manners, and class. And Captain Forrester is a pillar himself, a strong man slowed a bit by an injury, a rigorously honest man, and a symbol of, one supposes, the pioneer spirit. As Niel, an orphan, grows older he studies law with his Uncle, the town lawyer, and finds himself occasionally invited to the Forrester house. It seems Mrs. Forrester has a special liking for him, and she introduces him to her Denver friends, including some people who make Niel a bit uneasy, such as Frank Ellinger.

It is by slow degrees that we learn that Mrs. Forrester is unfaithful, for some time carrying on with Ellinger, though Niel refuses to see this. Then a series of reverses affect the town of Sweet Water, and most particularly Captain Forrester, whose honesty compels him to take the full burden of the failure of a bank he has invested in; and who is further felled by a stroke. We learn, as Niel is slow to, that Mrs. Forrester needs the Captain's money more than his person -- and finally Niel is fully disillusioned when she takes up with a loathsome local man.

So, it is a portrait of a "Lost Lady" -- with a back story involving her marriage to the Captain that is only revealed late. She is a sad character, much more to be pitied than held in contempt, and Niel's early admiration can be seen as not really so misplaced, if misemphasized. And of course there is behind all this the story of the West, and of the displacement of the pioneer spirit (represented by Captain Forrester) with the corruption of money-grubbing Eastern ways (represented by Ivy Peters, the loathsome fellow, who becomes a slimy lawyer, with whom Mrs. Forrester takes up).

I thought it a marvelous book, beautifully written and honest and convincing. And with some really striking passages. Here's one: "The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were practical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of people like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything." I confess I'm not entirely sure that she's correct with her point here -- but, it's pretty to think so! Here's another passage: "He had seen the end of an ear, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already the glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter's fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Ellen Adair, by Frederick Niven

Ellen Adair, by Frederick Niven

A review by Rich Horton



Here's a truly obscure book that likely was not a bestseller of any sort, though the writer did have a modest reputation in his day. He was regarded, it seems, as a writer of fairly serious intent, and he does seem still to be remembered in Canada as a fairly significant early writer of the Canadian West -- "British Columbia's first professional man of letters" one article says.

Frederick Niven, like his very near contemporary John Buchan, was a Scottish writer who ended up in Canada, and as such is claimed by both countries. Buchan has never struck me as very Canadian at all, spending only his last five years there, and as far as I know writing very little if any fiction set there. But Niven, who was born in in Chile in 1878 to Scottish parents, and lived in Scotland from a very young age, spent several years in Canada in his early adulthood, and moved permanently to British Columbia in 1920, for his health. He died in 1944. A number of his later novels were set in Canada, mostly historicals, while most of his Scottish novels are set in his present day, more often in his true home town of Glasgow, but in the case of Ellen Adair in Edinburgh.

Niven spent some time writing for the Glasgow Weekly Herald and other papers as a young man, often writing about Western Canada. He was not able to fight in the Great War due to health, but he did write for the Ministry of Information, similar to other writers I've covered like Buchan and, as I recall, Anthony Hope. Writing appears to have been his only profession.

Ellen Adair was first published in 1913. My edition seems to be the first American edition, and it came out in 1925 from Boni and Liveright. It is set in the early 20th century, in Edinburgh. It opens with the title character at her very first dance. We quickly gather that she's pretty, and lively, and very flirtatious. She has an older sister, Louise, who is rather more serious and studious than she, and an older brother, Tom, who doesn't play much of a role besides introducing the girls to various friends and acquaintances, for both good and ill. She also has an admirer, Jimmy Ray, who works at his father's jewelry store -- but she seems contemptuous of his attentions.

Ellen's father is of humble origins, and has a modest job as a porter. Her mother is ashamed of her husband's position, and accent, and even his church, and has worked to improve all those things -- by misrepresenting his job to her friends, by insisting he abandon his accent, and by insisting they leave the Methodist church for something more socially respectable (Church of Scotland, I suppose).

At first the story seems likely to be a coming of age story -- Ellen will have a couple of love affairs, treat some people poorly, but grow up and come to her senses and marry, perhaps, Jimmy Ray. But we soon realize that she's not just careless, but rather stupid, and cruel, and not at all interested in learning better. Indeed, after a while it seems like she might be called Lydia, and her mother might be Mrs. Bennett. (Louise, I suppose, might be seen as a combination of Jane and Mary Bennett. There is no Elizabeth on hand.) Ellen gets a job at a used bookstore, typing up catalogs, but instead of helping out at the shop when not busy typing, she turns away customers and flirts with the other assistants, eventually causing one to be dismissed by lying about his actions; and causing another to leave on his own. Her career only gets worse -- she is dismissed, then takes up with a rather nasty seducer, against Louise's insistence but with the unfortunate implicit approval (very Mrs. Bennett-like) of her mother -- and the inevitable occurs.

The ending sequences are quite melodramatic (a weakness of Niven's, reviews suggest). Up until then, though, it's a pretty well-written book, with fairly believable and well-depicted characters, solid dialogue, and convincing descriptions of Edinburgh life. Of course Ellen's fate is unfair to a considerable extent, and the result of a sexist society -- but it's also the result of quite real and convincing faults in her character (and that of her mother; and to be sure a father who would not stand up to his wife's pretensions). It's not a particularly special novel, but it's nicely enough done -- a solid example, I suppose, of a decent piece of somewhat moralistic midlist fiction.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Not a Bestseller: The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

Not a Bestseller: The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

A review by Rich Horton


Not done with my latest Old Bestseller, so I'm turning to a review I did quite a while ago of a magnificent posthumous collection of stories by one of SF's greatest and most individual writers, Avram Davidson. I hope his work is not forgotten ... I don't think it is -- but it does seem to get less mention than it used to. 

Avram Davidson died in 1993, 70 years old and too young. He was, as is so often said, one of the great originals. His writing was elegant and complex, always adapted to the voices of his narrators and characters, and always at some level humorous even when telling a dark story. He was one of those writers whose stories were consistently enjoyable for just wallowing in the prose, with its sprung rhythms and fine, out of the way, images. His stories also were enjoyable for wallowing in atmosphere, with their evocation of exotic place-times, whether it be late-50s New York City or early-70s Belize, turn-of-the-century Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania or far-future Barnum's Planet, and for their evocation of exotic world-views, and the packing and repacking of wondrous, seemingly inconsequential (though rarely truly so) background tidbits of history and unhistory. His best stories took these characteristics and harnessed them in the service of well-honed themes or (sometimes) clever plots. 

This collection is organized as a retrospective, with the selections placed in order of first appearance. This is, I think, an excellent choice for any collection of this magnitude. It allows the interested reader to try to track evolutions in the writer's style and thematic concerns over time. (I would suggest, perhaps, that the older Davidson was more prone to explorations of esoterica than the younger, and less often openly angry. Throughout his career, he was ready with the comic touch, even in the midst of a darker context. His style was always special, but perhaps grew more involved as he grew older.)
Another feature of this collection is the introductions by many of Davidson's friends -- mostly fellow authors and editors, but also his son and his bibliographer, Henry Wessels. This represents a significant chunk of "value added": they include some personal reminiscences, some analyses of the work, and some elegiac passages. I'll add that the book is nicely and elegantly put together, and that editors Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis (as well as Tor in-house editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden) deserve thanks and applause for working to bring us this book.

But, of course, there is no Avram Davidson Treasury without the stories Avram Davidson wrote, and 38 are assembled here. And, the stories are the only real reason to buy and exult in this book. I'm a big Davidson fan: make no mistake. I come to this review not at all objective, and having reading all but a few of the stories already, many of them several times. At least one, "The Sources of the Nile," is firmly on my personal list of the best SF stories of all time.

So, highlights? As mentioned, "The Sources of the Nile" is an all-time favorite of mine, a mordantly funny (indeed very funny) story of a young writer who stumbles across a family that anticipates future fashion trends. This proves of great interest to the advertising industry, and the writer chases after the secret. But he's not the only person who could make use of such information. It's tightly plotted, always logical, and perfectly resolved (the first two features not being very high on Davidson's list of strengths). It's also full of gorgeous telling details of character and setting, as well as the odd Davidsonian bit of thematically-pointed esoteric knowledge. And, as Gregory Feeley's introduction points out, it has a sound moral core.

"Manatee Gal Won't You Come Out Tonight?" was the first of the Jack Limekiller tales, and "Polly Charms the Sleeping Woman" the first of the Dr. Eszterhazy tales. Each serves as the representative in this anthology for its respective series, and each is wonderful in its own right as well as a great introduction to the characters and settings (both important) of both sets of stories.

The Limekiller stories are often called "Magic Realism." I don't want to try to define that term but it does give a small sense of their flavor. "Manatee Gal ..." introduces Jack Limekiller, expatriate Canadian, owner of the boat Sacarissa, and his adopted home of British Hidalgo (i.e. British Honduras, or Belize). Jack gets entwined with a mystery concerning manatees, the old African tribes called Mantee or Mandingo, a lost colony in the British Hidalgo bush, and plenty more. The mystery is satisfactory and nicely resolved, but the joy of the story is the detail of the Caribbean setting, and such points as the nicely recorded voices of the various characters. "Polly Charms ..." is set in a Ruritanian sort of locale: the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. Again, there is a mystery: a young woman who has been sleeping for decades, without growing older, is put on display. The "unquestionably great and justly famous Engelbert Eszterhazy, Doctor of Jurisprudence, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Literature, Doctor of Science, et sic cetera" is urged to investigate, perhaps because fraud is suspected, but the story comes to a sadder, more moving, conclusion than would result from any bald explanation of the facts. Once again, the finely rendered details of life in the Triune Monarchy provide a major portion of the pleasure of the story.

I had read, I said, the great majority of these stories, but a few were new to me. "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment" is one of Davidson's mysteries (he was a regular contributor to mystery magazines). This story won the Edgar Award, but has apparently not been reprinted until now. I've been reading a lot of Kipling lately, and it occurs to me that Davidson is definitely like Kipling in many important ways (although not politically, except perhaps for disliking Germans! Ray Bradbury makes this point briefly in an afterword, as well). "The Affair ..." is, in fact, based on a certain famous Kipling poem, and as such is perhaps too obvious an example. However, it shows how Davidson shares with Kipling the ability to use a frame story subtly to the advantage of the main story, the love of planting subtle clues in places you don't expect (little details which seem interesting when introduced and are vital later in the story), and, of course, the beautiful use of characters' voices, especially the ear for accents.

Another story new to me was the rather recent "The Slovo Stove." This is a great story, telling of a man returning to his hometown after many years, and encountering a family of immigrants. The plot, about a wonderful device (the title stove) brought over from the old country, echoes "The Sources of the Nile" in some ways. But thematically, and more importantly, the story carefully, and mostly in the background, recapitulates the process of assimilation of immigrants into the dominant culture of the new land. Again, it's very moving, and very funny too. And, it seems to me, deeply true.


Davidson was at the same time an instantly recognizable writer, with an eccentric and lovable prose style, and a writer of great range. He could do straight comedy, quirky horror, mystery, social criticism, pure fantasy, mainstream, and at least relatively hard SF. (OK, pretty squishy, but real SF for all that.) He's shown in all these phases in this anthology (and of course, many stories combine several of the above features). So read "Author, Author" for comedy, "Dagon" for eerie horror, "The Necessity of His Condition" for bitter social commentary, and "Now Let Us Sleep" for SF (and also bitter social commentary).

There is not space to list the remainder of the delightful stories herein contained, such as ""Hark! Was That the Squeal of an Angry Thoat?" with its loving portrayal of Greenwich Village; "Yellow Rome; or, Vergil and the Vestal Virgin", a tempting beginning to the third Vergil novel; and the truly creepy SF horror story, "The House the Blakeneys Built." Suffice it to say that this collection is big enough, and varied enough, to whet the appetite of any reader whose ear can be tuned to catch the strains of Davidson's voice. And even this large collection inevitably leaves out many fine stories (the other Eszterhazy and Limekiller stories, "The Lord of Central Park," and many more), to say nothing of his engaging collection of essays, Adventures in Unhistory, in which he discusses at length many obscure legends and their possible bases in fact. So buy it and read it, and very likely you will find yourself searching out the out-of-print and small press books which house the rest of his work (for now). Very likely too you will be hoping with the rest of us Davidson lovers for a few more treasures to be dug from his papers, like the recent novella The Boss in the Wall, or perhaps the third Vergil novel.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Black Plumes, by Margery Allingham

Old Bestsellers: Black Plumes, by Margery Allingham

A review by Rich Horton

Margery Allingham (1902-1966) was one of the Grande Dames of British mystery writing in the middle of the last century, very well known -- perhaps only Agatha Christie was more famous among British women mystery writers of her time. The bulk of her books featured Albert Campion, and aristocratic character, sometimes detective, sometimes adventurer or spy. I think I read one or two of those back in the day, but I can't say I'm terribly familiar with her.

Black Plumes struck my eye not because I wanted to read something else by Allingham (though that was a plus), but because of the publication venue of the edition I found. It's a reprint in the "Bestseller Mystery" series by Lawrence E. Spivak. This was part of Mercury Press, the original publishers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (as well as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine); and indeed the "book" has the look and feel of early issues of F&SF or EQMM. The book was originally published by Doubleday, Doran in 1940. This edition seems to have come out in about 1942. A note inside the book states "Sometimes [Bestseller Mysteries] are reprinted in full, but more often they are cut to speed up the story ...". Black Plumes in this printing seems perhaps 63,000 words -- probably representing a slight cut from the original edition.

This is one of the relatively few Allingham mysteries not to feature Albert Campion. The detective is one Inspector Bridie, from Orkney, and he's an amusing enough character, but not really that important. The book centers on Frances Ivory, a 20 year old woman who at the beginning of the book is visiting her intimidating grandmother Gabrielle, complaining that her elder half-sister Phillida's husband, Robert Madrigal, is suggesting that she marry his odious business partner, Henry Lucar. Lucar is a pushy young man who gained a mild reputation as a hero for saving Madrigal on an expedition to Tibet with the notorious adventurer Dolly Godolphin, who died in the Himalayas. Frances is also upset because some disturbing things are happening at the art gallery owned by her father, but run by Madrigal and Lucar in her father's absence. The latest issue is a slashed painting, and the painter, David Field, shows up to complain. Field had painted Frances when she was 14 ... now she's 20, and he seems suddenly attracted, as she is to him. Things get further complicated when Field suggests they pretend to be engaged, in order to deflect Lucar's attentions.

That's the setup ... and then comes the murder. Robert Madrigal disappears for a few days, before he's discovered stuffed in a closet. At the same time, more or less, it is revealed that Dolly Godolphin is not dead after all ... he was rescued by monks at a lamasery, and after a few years is finally returning to England. Evidence seems to point to either David Field or Henry Lucar as the main suspect. Frances finds herself shading the truth slightly, about events she witnessed the night of Madrigal's disappearance, in order to protect David Field. Meanwhile Henry Lucar has apparently fled to America.

Lucar's a convenient villain -- and he's a bad guy, all right -- but that means he can't possibly be the murderer, and so it proves to be. So the novel turns on Field's apparent possible guilt, and Frances' decision to protect him, despite her fears he may really be guilty. Godolphin returns to England, and there are further revelations of tangled relationships among Madrigal, Godolphin, and Field, and the fact that all of them were at one time or another involved with Phillida. Inspector Bridie seems to know when one is lying ... And then there is grandmother Gabrielle, trying to control events in her imperious Victorian fashion.

It's a nice book, classic crime fiction of its era, with a strong and nicely resolved murder mystery at the core, and an affecting enough romance plot as well. I liked it -- Allingham seems worthy of her reputation even in this book not featuring her main detective character. The abridgement, assuming the book was abridged, isn't obviously noticeable.