Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Birthday Review: Stories of Allen Steele

 Birthday Review: Stories of Allen M. Steele

Today is Allen Steele's birthday. I've read a good many of Steele's novels and shorter work over the past few decades, generally with enjoyment though not rapture: Steele is a very traditional SF writer, reworking fairly familiar tropes. But he does so effectively, and if his stories seem a bit old hat that do entertain. (Allen lived not far from me, in the St. Louis area, for a while but I never met him them -- he's moved back east and I did meet him at a couple of Boskones.)

Here's a set of my reviews of his work from my Locus column:

Locus, February 2002

The cover story for Feburary's Asimov's is the latest of Allen M. Steele's "Coyote" tales, a series about the successful hijacking of a colonization starship to the planet called Coyote, and the subsequent struggles to establish a colony.  These stories are truly old-fashioned in some central assumptions: the habitability of Coyote is blithely accepted,  and there is little concern for disrupting an alien ecology. Somewhat old-fashioned, too, is the straightforward conflict resolution nature of the stories -- the conflicts often arising from the rather black and white division of the original colonists into heroic freedom-loving hijackers, and militaristic authoritarian loyalists.  So my reading of these pieces is colored by a certain lack of belief in the basic situation -- but getting past that, they have been a reliably entertaining several stories.  This latest is "Across the Eastern Divide": several teenagers, bored with life in the colony, illegally take a couple of canoes and some supplies and venture on a dangerous journey downriver, across the Eastern Divide, to the Equatorial River. The trip forces the illicitly pregnant narrator to confront her relationships with her baby's father, with another boy, and with her adoptive mother. The trip also forces all the participants into much greater danger than they had anticipated.  There is nothing much new or special here, but it is an enjoyable adventure story.

Locus, December 2002

Allen Steele continues his Coyote series with "Glorious Destiny". Steele is an effective adventure writer, fun to read, and this story doesn't disappoint. The struggling but apparently succeeding colony on the world Coyote now faces a new crisis – the arrival of another spaceship from Earth. The exact nature of the crisis, and Steele's solution, are a bit unexpected and nicely handled. This isn't a classic, but it is fast-moving and exciting. 

Locus, August 2003

Allen M. Steele's latest Coyote story is "Benjamin the Unbeliever" (Asimov's, August), about a religious cult centered around a surgically altered man. They come to Coyote, and the title character, looking for a job and attracted to a cute young woman in the cult, helps them out. He ends up guiding them on a dangerous journey into the unexplored wilderness, with tragic results. Steele tells a good story as always, though this isn't one of the best Coyote pieces.

Locus, April 2007

I’ll also mention the two novellas in the April-May Asimov's, both by familiar names, both pretty good. Allen Steele’s “The River Horses” is a Coyote story, in which Marie Montero and Lars Thompson, heroes of the revolution who have not adjusted well to peacetime life, are sent into exile to, in the Heinlein story model terms, “learn better”. The savant Manuel Castro accompanies them – for reasons of his own that we soon guess. The story has a familiar shape, and nowhere does it surprise, but it is well-executed and exciting.

Locus, September 2010

At the October Analog, I enjoyed Allen M. Steele’s “The Great Galactic Ghoul”. This fits a familiar Analog form: it’s a tale of asteroid mining, a disaster, and a rescue effort. What lifts it above the ordinary is its matter of fact, almost journalistic, telling, and its bleakly honest resolution to the mystery of the disaster (along with a sort of metastory of war and politics lingering in the background).

Locus, November 2014

Another enjoyable read that comes a bit short of full satisfaction is Allen M. Steele's “The Prodigal Son” (Asimov's, October-November), a sequel to his earlier “The Legion of Tomorrow”, about a group of SF professionals who set up a foundation to develop a starship. Here the disaffected great-great-grandson of the SF writer involved is sent to the island in the Caribbean where the starship parts are being built. The rather predictable plot has his cynicism overcome by a combination of satisfaction in his work for the first time in his life, along with of course the love of a good woman … so, it's a bit on the hackneyed side but it's well-executed and enjoyable reading anyway.

Locus, January 2015

Allen Steele continues his series of stories about an SF writer's legacy in “The Long Wait” (Asimov's, January), now revealed as the penultimate chapter of (as was already clear) an episodic novel. This is told by the daughter of the lead couple in the previous story. Her life is significantly devoted, not entirely by her will, to monitoring the progress of the starship launched in the previous story, while things fall apart at home, both locally (her mother never really recovers from the events of the previous story, and her father becomes an alcoholic) and globally (the Earth is threatened by an asteroid.) This is another story that treads quite familiar ground for SF readers, but it does so expertly: it never surprises, but it's a solid enjoyable read.

Locus, June 2015

“The Children of Gal” is the final installment of Allen Steele’s forthcoming Arkwright, which will be an expanded version of four Asimov’s stories which have followed the story of the building and then journey of Earth’s first starship. Here we see the state of the colonies established on Eos, in particular one isolated city which has established a somewhat repressive religion after a weather-related catastrophe. Sanjay is a young man whose mother has been banished for heresy, for claiming to see lights in the sky near Gal, their god. The arc of the story is easily enough guessed: Sanjay will eventually find a way to solve the mystery of the lights, and learn the true nature of Gal and his world. None of this surprises, but Steele handles the familiar material expertly, ringing a couple of nice changes on it, and the story is a good read throughout. 

Locus, December 2019

I find that in the last 2019 issue of Asimov’s I enjoyed several stories by, well, men of roughly my age, let’s just say. Allen Steele’s latest tale of the human settlement on the planet Tawcety, and their fraught relationship with the doglike rulers of the planet is “Escape from Sanctuary”. Crowe and his young friend Philip are in jail … but before long they’re freed, and soon after are in the hands of an outlaw gang, looking for a way to reunite Philip with his wife – which may end up taking them off Sanctuary, the only place humans are allowed. Fun and fast-moving adventure. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Birthday Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

 Charles Yu turns 45 today. His second novel, Interior Chinatown, just won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Much of his earlier work, including many short stories and his first novel, is SF, or SF-adjacent. (I reprinted one of those stories, "Standard Loneliness Package", in my 2011 Best of the Year volume.)

For his birthday, here's a review I did for SF Site of his first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Charles Yu is a young writer whose first book, the story collection Third Class Superhero, gained a lot of praise in literary circles. But he's one also a guy who grew up reading Isaac Asimov. He has professed admiration for the likes of Richard Powers, who writes literary novels -- but also sometimes SF, and almost always scientifically-engaged work. So, what is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? Actually, that's an interesting question.

On the face of it, why doubt the SFnality of the book? The story concerns a 30ish guy named Charles Yu, who is a "certified network technician" working as an "approved independent affiliate for Time Warner Time". This means he fixes time machines. The story also concerns time loops and paradoxes and parallel universes. Pure SF, right? And indeed, so it is, at that level. But what is the novel really about? It's about a somewhat drifting young man, who misses the father who left years ago, and who occasionally visits his lonely mother, and who has never met the right woman to marry, and who is stuck in a dead-end job. Pure mainstream, right?

At bottom, such definitional questions don't matter very much. What Yu is doing, simply enough, is using some SFnal tropes in support of purely mainstream aims. That does affect the audience, of course. The novel isn't really interested in the mechanics of time travel, nor in a fully plausible future. Nor should it be. It's interested in the main character, and in his mother, and in his time machine's operating system (look, SFnal tropes again!) who has the personality of a sweet woman he's never really noticed while mooning over the girl he never married. And most of all, it's interested in Charles Yu's relationship with his father, an immigrant to the US, who struggled for years in his garage to invent a time machine and make something of himself. And who disappeared after his invention failed and someone else beat him to it.

But all that said, the novel isn't just another boring mainstream book about a guy trying to understand his father*. The SFnal furniture really does make things work. We know from the start that everything turns on a time loop engendered by Charles Yu killing his future self, and on the paradox that the book we are reading is a book he could only write by reading the book his dying future self gave him. Charles' mother is stuck in a time loop herself, reliving one of her few happy moments, or so Charles believes. And the entire "Minor Universe" in which the action takes place is a satirically altered version of our world -- or perhaps it is somehow our world? -- a minor universe slightly damaged in construction. The SFnal tropes, then, are not interesting as Science Fiction, per se. We don't care that this novel isn't in any serious way about the possibility of time travel. But the tropes work to help tell the story, and to make serious points about the central characters, and satirical points about the "real world." And that's as good a use as any.

I haven't said a whole lot about the plot of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and I don't think I have to. The book works not because of plot but because of voice, character, and a humorous but bittersweet attitude. It's not an earthshakingly brilliant book, but it's a very enjoyable first novel, from a writer with real chops.

(*Let's take it as read, shall we, that there are plenty of wonderful, not boring, mainstream books about a guy trying to understand his father.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of James Sallis

James Sallis was born December 21, 1944. His day job was as a respiratory therapist, but he's better known as a writer. his novels have been almost all crime novels -- the Lew Griffin books in particular, as well as Drive, which became a movie starring Ryan Gosling. He got his start writing SF, however, and early on was particularly associated with the New Wave -- he published regularly in Orbit, and served for a time as co-editor of New Worlds. His short -- often very short -- fiction has been compared -- sensibly, it seems to me -- with another "New Wave", the French Nouvelle Vague cinema. He was continue to publish short work in SF magazines over the years, some of it truly excellent -- notably, to me, "Dayenu", from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet in 2018, which I think one of the best (and most overlooked) novelettes of the past decade. Here's a look at some of his fiction -- recent work I've reviewed for Locus, and older work I wrote about less formally.

Orbit 9

This volume of Orbit includes two very odd stories by James Sallis. I can't say I'm sure I understood either of them, but both are intriguing, well-written, experimental pieces. "Binaries" tells in several sections of the relationship of a man and a woman, or multiple men and multiple women, across years, across continents. "Only the Words are Different" is also about men and women. It's also very strange, and somewhat more comic, and vaguely science-fictional. It's hard to say much about these stories that makes sense, but they were worth reading.

F&SF, June 1971

"They Fly at Ciron", by Samuel R. Delany and James Sallis, is one of a rare set of stories -- collaborations that were later expanded to novels by only one of the collaborators. Other examples include "The Weakness of RVOG", by James Blish and Damon Knight, a 1949 novelette that became Blish's solo novel from 1958, VOR; and "Tomorrow's Children", Poul Anderson's first published story from 1947, a collaboration with F. N. Waldrop, which became Anderson's novel Twilight World in 1961. (Less certain is the novel The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey, which is an expansion of the novella "No More Stars", by the pseudonymous "Charles Satterfield", often attributed to del Rey with Frederik Pohl.) Delany expanded this novelette to the novel They Fly at Çiron in 1993, in an edition which includes two additional stories, "Ruins" and "Return to Çiron". 

"They Fly at Ciron" is in a way a standard sort of fantasy adventure. Ciron is a peaceful land, suddenly subject to invasion by the warmongers of Myetra. The military leader of the invasion is Handman Kire, himself a victim of Myetra's expansionism. On the way to the invasion, Kire, revolted by the cruelty of his Myetran prince, Nactor, goes off by himself to cool down, and encounters Rahm, a Cironian, and happens to save Rahm from a threat from a Winged One. Rahm returns to Ciron, and though warned of the danger of the Myetrans, cannot believe they would attack his peaceful people. Of course they do, and Rahm flees, ending up with the Winged Ones, saving one of their princes from a spider creature -- but returns to Ciron, determined to resist the Myetrans -- a resistance only made possible by the help of people from outside peaceful Ciron -- a visiting bard, a Winged One, and, eventually, Kire. There's nothing much really new her, but it's very well done, and I liked it a lot.

Orbit 11

Orbit regular James Sallis' contribution this time is "Doucement, S'il Vous Plait", a quite delightfully wistful, even mournful, story told from the point of view of a letter, which is forwarded and returned and remailed all over the world ... by the end we sense that this is a sort of metaphorical treatment of a failed relationship. I think it may be my favorite early Sallis story.

Orbit 13

James Sallis contributes "My Friend Zarathustra", an intriguing short-short about a man who has lost his wife to his friend Zarathustra ... of course there is more going on, and like Sallis' other Orbit pieces, I'm not sure I fully followed it but it was fun and intriguing.

Review of Leviathan 3

"Up", by James Sallis, another curious and intriguing story, about a man in a world much like ours, where people are beginning suddenly to go "up" – to vanish literally into ashes. This man is dealing with the death of his wife, and his life seems more and more lonely and constrained. Perhaps the story is about his plight only – or perhaps the story is about the plight of all of us. 

Locus, July 2018

Even better is a remarkable long story by James Sallis, “Dayenu” (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Spring). It opens with the narrator doing an unspecified but apparently criminal job, and then fleeing the house he was squatting in, and meeting an old contact for a new identity. Seems like a crime story – and Sallis is, after all, primarily a crime novelist. But details of unfamiliarity mount, from the pervasive surveillance to a changed geography, then to the realization that the rehab stint the narrator mentioned right at the start was a rather more extensive rehab than we might have thought. Memories of wartime service are detailed, and two partners in particular – a woman named Fran or Molly, a man named Merrit Li. Page by page the story seems odder, and the destination less expected. The prose is a pleasure too – with desolate rhythms and striking images. Quite a work, and not like anything I’ve recently read. 

Locus, May 2020

Interzone features a novelette by the great James Sallis in the March-April issue. As common for Sallis, “Carriers” begins in a strange place and ends up somewhere completely different (though still plenty strange.) The opening describes a brief skirmish in a decaying or collapsing near future US, followed by a few encounters between a doctor desperately trying to save the people he can, even (or especially?) those on the wrong side of what now counts as law, and in this case specifically including the very young man who was hurt in the first section. Then we move decades in the future, to another odd encounter between the doctor and the man he had saved long ago, with a mysterious sort of ghost present as well. It’s simply differently powerful – but very powerful – in a way I’m coming to associate with Sallis.

Locus, July 2020

Analog continues to morph into a new Analog – true to its tradition, still full of near-future stories of planetary exploration and colonization, for example – but open to writers I’d not have expected to see. For example, the May-June issue includes a story by James Sallis (Sallis in the Analog mafia! Will wonders never cease?): “Net Loss”, a sneakily very dark short-short about a man who is arrested due to evidence from his “smart” TV.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Birthday Review: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

a brief review by Rich Horton


The English novelist Ford Madox Ford was born with the rather enormous string of names Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer on December 17, 1873, so this is the 147th anniversary of his birth. I assume all the extra names were a family tradition of some sort, and apparently he was always called Ford. Early novels were published under the name H. Ford Hueffer, later Ford M. Hueffer or Ford Madox Hueffer. After World War I he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford because Hueffer sounded too German. His first novel was published in 1892. He published three novels written with Joseph Conrad. His most famous works by far are The Good Soldier and the Parade's End series of four books. He is also remembered for an historical trilogy about Catherine Howard (the Fifth Queen trilogy) and for an SF book (of sorts), Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, about a man who goes back to Medieval times. He died in 1939.

I wrote this piece about The Good Soldier a couple of decades ago upon reading it. It's brief, really not very substantial, but the novel has only grown in my memory, so I figured I'd go ahead and repost it. The only other novel of his I've read is Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (in both versions, the original from 1911 and the 1935 revision), and I do plan to write about that book as well.

I had waited to read the book partly because I thought it would be a heavy-going tragedy.  I took the famous first sentence ("This is the saddest story I have ever heard.") literally.  (Indeed, Ford's original title for the book was The Saddest Story, but as I understand it his publisher felt that The Good Soldier would be a better title for a book published in wartime (it appeared in 1915.))

It turns out, of course, that, while The Good Soldier can hardly be called a happy book, it is a comedy.  A dark, rather bitter, rather sarcastic, comedy, and hardly funny ha-ha, but a comedy nonetheless.  It gives one pause to think how much of the major English and Irish fiction of the 20th century is comedy.  Ulysses.  All of Flann O'Brien.  A Dance to the Music of Time.  Kingsley Amis (and of course Martin Amis.)  Muriel Spark.  Evelyn Waugh.  Henry Green.  Even Orwell, sometimes.  Penelope Fitzgerald. I suppose perhaps I am picking and choosing examples to support my point.  And I'm not so sure this applies to American novels.  But I do think a point can be made that the major mode of the English novel in the 20th Century is comic.

Anyway, The Good Soldier tells the story of two rich couples in the years leading up to World War I, an American couple, John Dowell (the narrator) and his wife Florence, and a British couple, Edward Ashburnham ("The Good Soldier") and his wife Leonora.  Both spend the years 1902-1914 or so on the Continent, because allegedly Edward and Florence have "hearts": that is, they are of questionable health and need to stay at various Continental spas, and need not to travel by sea.  The joke, of course, is that their heart problems actually have to do with their sexual appetites.  Both Edward and Florence are serial adulterers, and inevitably strike up a relationship, of which Leonora is aware but John Dowell, in many ways a foolish and pathetic figure, is unaware.  The two couples seem fast friends, and live utterly empty and pointless lives.

The novel is extremely well and complexly constructed, as Dowell tells and retells their history, from the point of view of each of the characters, and going back and forth in time.  We realize from the beginning that as Dowell tells his story Edward and Florence are dead, and he slowly gets around to telling about the precipitating events, involving "the girl", as she is called, Nancy Rufford, a quasi-niece of the Ashburnhams, which result in the destruction of the carefully maintained arrangements the four have lived in.  It's indeed a striking and remarkable book, and a very well done portrayal of a pointless way of life, and four quite unpleasant characters.  The humor is mostly sarcastic and understated, though there are a few horrifying set-pieces. The impact by the end is quite profound. I consider it one of the great novels of the 20th Century.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Birthday Review: Territory, by Emma Bull

Birthday Review: Territory, by Emma Bull

a review by Rich Horton

I wrote this review for Fantasy Magazine when Emma Bull's (to date) last novel, Territory, was published, in 2007. Bull made -- and deserved -- a big splash when her first few novels (War for the Oaks, Falcon, Bone Dance, and Finder) came out, in the late '80s and early '90s. Since then she has written fairly little -- a collaboration with Steven Brust, one with her husband Will Shetterly, and contributions to the intriguing "web serial" Shadow Unit; plus this novel. I've enjoyed all her work, particularly Falcon, which is imperfectly constructed by which pushes all my buttons. 

Emma Bull is one of those writers about whom my main complaint is that they don’t write enough. Her last novel, Freedom and Necessity (with Stephen Brust) appeared fully a decade ago. So I was delighted to see Territory on bookstore shelves this summer.


This is a fantasy set in the Old West, indeed, in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, in the months leading up to the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Bull focuses on three characters. Mildred Benjamin is a young widow making an independent life for herself as a newspaperwoman and as a writer of early “pulp” Western stories. Jesse Fox is a horse trainer, previously from San Francisco, who has wandered into Tombstone on the way to Mexico – or so he thinks. And Doc Holliday – well, we know who Doc Holliday is: a dentist, a card player, a Southerner, and a friend of the controversial Wyatt Earp.

Through the eyes of these characters we learn the dicey political situation in Tombstone. Much of the trouble is centered on Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Wyatt wants to be Sheriff, but has no formal position. Virgil is City Marshal. And there no account brother Morgan is on the other side, more or less, and as the novel opens he has just participated in an attempted stagecoach robbery that left two people dead. Doc Holliday manages to create an alibi for Morgan, but in the process becomes a suspect himself. Over the next few months tensions rise between the townspeople, the Earps, and the cowboys, some of them rustlers, who live outside of town – people like the McLaury brothers, John Ringo (supposedly an ancestor of the SF writer of that name), and the Clantons. And the truth about the stage robbery becomes fuzzy as the main suspects all meet violent deaths before they can be arrested.

All this is for the most part historical record. What makes this story a story is the personal experience of the main characters. Mildred is the most engaging, the best depicted. As a woman, she has a different view of the conflict, especially once she befriends the Earps’ wives. And her budding career as a reporter gives her a still different angle. Jesse Fox, meanwhile, has his own secret, one he is loath to admit to himself. He can do magic. His friend Chow Lung, a Chinese doctor, urges him to accept his abilities. And in so doing, he realizes that there are other magic users in Tombstone – including very likely both Wyatt Earp and at least one of Earp’s enemies. Finally, Doc Holliday is probably the least well realized main character – perhaps because he is historical. His viewpoint serves mostly as an inside look at Wyatt Earp’s “camp”.

At this level the book follows Jesse’s arrival, his investigation, with Chow Lung, of the murder of a Chinese prostitute, and his subsequent realization that the girl was a victim of the political eddies in Tombstone. Meanwhile Mildred moves from typesetter to reporter at the Nugget as she gets interested in the nasty doings of a mining company. At the same time she is romantically drawn to both Tom McLaury and Jesse Fox. And her knowledge of the situation of the Earp women puts her squarely in the anti-Earp camp. Meanwhile Doc Holliday is trying to escape Earp’s orbit, urged by his common law wife Kate. But Earp’s hold – magical, perhaps? – seems to prove too strong.

The book is quite a delightful read. Mildred and Jesse are engaging protagonists, if, as I mentioned, Doc Holliday is a bit thinner. The fantastical element is modest but well-integrated and well portrayed. I had just one major issue: as the end approached, I realized that the remaining pages were not possibly enough to contain the actual gunfight. And, indeed, the book rather suddenly stops – at a not unreasonable point, with certain crucial information just revealed, but not, it turns out, at the end of the story. Yes – once again we have a book that is only Part 1 of a series (of only two books, I believe) – with absolutely no indication of this fact in the book, or on the cover, or anywhere unless you poke around the author’s web page. I will certainly be happy to read the conclusion to this story – but it would have been nice to know going in that Territory is only the first half. [That's what I wrote in 2007, but no sequel has eventuated -- perhaps none was ever planned.]


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Old Non-Bestseller Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding/An Integrated Man, by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding/An Integrated Man, by Julia Strachey

a review by Rich Horton

Julia Strachey was born in India in 1901, the daughter of Oliver Strachey -- and Oliver Strachey, a civil servant, was also Lytton Strachey's older brother. They moved back to England 6 years later, and Strachey's young life was further ruffled by her parents' divorce a few years later. She became sort of multiply a kind of second generation Bloomsburyite -- not only was she Lytton Strachey's niece, but her father's second wife, Ray Costelloe (a mathematician/engineer and a major figure in the suffrage movement) was Virginia Woolf's sister-in-law (extended). She began writing occasional short stories, and in 1932 published a short novel, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, that was very well-received at the time and has retained its reputation, having been reprinted as recently as 2009 by Persephone Books, and having been adapted (not terribly successfully, it would seem) into a film in 2012. She never did write regularly, it seems, and her only other novel appeared in 1951 as The Man on the Pier. It was reprinted along with Cheerful Weather For the Wedding in 1978, under Strachey's preferred title, An Integrated Man. Strachey died a year later; and a few years after that her lifelong friend Frances Partridge assembled the fragments of autobiography she had left behind with additional material by Partridge as Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge. (Frances Partridge, sometimes called "The Last of the Bloomsbury Set", was an interesting figure herself, living to just a few weeks short of her 104th birthday in 2004.)

So, a curiously sparse bibliography. Her stories (and some poetry) don't seem well-regarded, but her novels (especially the first) and the strange memoir are still remembered. I had not heard of her until recently, but the novels looked interesting, and writers of the first half of the 20th Century are always worth a look (for me), so I found a used copy of the 1978 Penguin omnibus of the two novels.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is really only novella length, perhaps 23,000 words. It takes place over just a few hours, on the day of the wedding of Dolly Thatcham to Owen Bigham. They are being married from the Thatchams' country house near Malton, which is a town that also features in An Integrated Man. (I suspect this Malton is not the real Malton in North Yorkshire, because this town seems close to the sea, and the real Malton is about 20 miles away.) There is not much in the way of plot (though over time some secrets do surface) -- the story is confined to the house, and to the actions of various family members, servants, and an ex-boyfriend of the bride. 

It's a satirical piece of writing, though in a more affectionate than cutting way. The various characters each get a look-in, enough that we know them a bit. Dolly seems perhaps a bit unsure of her coming nuptials, or perhaps just nervous ... she takes forever to get ready, and gets drunk in the process. Her sister Kitty is worried about being thought provincial and perhaps rather overcomplicated. Young Tom is furious at his younger brother Robert for insisting on wearing hideous socks, mostly because he's convinced a schoolmate will see them and the ridicule will be visited on Tom. Mrs. Thatcham is vague and rambling and insistent on the "cheerful weather" they are having for the wedding even though the say is windy and cold. And then there's Joseph, a former admirer of Dolly, who is pining and hiding from everyone else, hoping for an audience with Dolly. 

It's nicely done, funny, very well-observed. There is a secret lurking in the background, that is subtly hinted at, never stated but clear enough to the reader. It's a portrait of a certain pre-War English class, not necessarily obvious to Americans, I think ... I mean, they have servants! But they're not upper class.

An Integrated Man is a different sort of book. Much longer, for one thing -- 60,000 words or so. It also displays Strachey's close observation, a real gift for interesting description of largely mundane things. It's set in the country, at Flitchcombe Manor, the home of Ned Moon's friend Reamur. Ned is the viewpoint character, the "integrated man" of the title, for so he declares himself at the open, a man of about 40, fully satisfied with his life, happy, and eagerly approaching his next challenge, a school he is opening with his friend Aron. He and Aron are spending a few weeks with Reamur and Reamur's wife Gwen; using the the time to finish preparations for the schoole, whilst Ned also tutors Reamur and Gwen's son Co-Co. The house party is soon to be expanded when Aron's wife Marina and their daughter Violet arrive. And for the first third of so of the book nothing in particular happens -- we just see Ned going about his normal days, and we get a sense of Ned's character, and a look at the environs of Flitchcombe Manor and the nearby villages. This works oddly well, mostly because of Strachey's excellent eye for detailed descriptons of small things.

The other shoe drops when Marina shows up. For, somewhat mysteriously, Ned decides that he is in lust with her. Indeed, that he must "have" her. And so while similar things happen to what happened for the first 60 pages -- walks across the countryside, group conversations, shopping at the village -- these things are all filtered through Ned's haze of lust. All this time Ned is trying to avoid detection, and often avoiding the rest of the party entirely. A bit to the reader's surprise, after some time Marina makes some little hints that she is interested in Ned as well.

So the conclusion comes -- the end of summer is near, school ready to start, and the house party will be breaking up. Ned and Marina awkwardly make an arrangement for him to come up to London for a couple of days, while Aron is setting things up at school. All Ned's desires are ready to be satisfied ...

The conclusion, then, is (as we perhaps expect) painful and embarrassing. Ned comes to realize that it is his friend and business partner, Aron, whom he will betray -- and for a woman that he lusts after but doesn't seem to much like. Ned is forced to hurt Marina terribly, and to leave himself frustrated. And to realize that he is perhaps really not such an "integrated man". 

I'm not sure how much I really liked this. I thought it was in many ways well done. I did believe in Ned -- of Marina and the others we get a much less full picture. And Ned's actions are, well, in the end proper (now as much as they were in 1936 when the book is set,) though of course he should have acted (or not acted!) much earlier. As I've said, Strachey's paragraph by paragraph writing is strong, and her powers of description impressive. This book has moments of comedy, but it's not generally comic in the way Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is; and I suppose I felt that in the end the book was just a bit thin. But I'm not sorry to have read it; and I do think Strachey, though of course a very minor writer, still a writer worth continued attention.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Birthday Review: The Gifts of the Child Christ and other stories, by George MacDonald

I realized that it has been over a month since I posted on this blog. There are Reasons, of course (mostly 2020 reasons), but that's too long. So I figured I would post a birthday review today -- this one is something rather short I wrote about 20 years ago. (I hope to have "non-bestseller review" of a 20th Century woman writer, Julia Strachey, in a day or two.)

George MacDonald was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, 19th Century fantasist, a mentor to Samuel Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and a key influence on C. S. Lewis. He was born on 10 December 1824, and died in 1905. He grew up in the Congregationalist church and become a minister, but eventually lost his job partly because of his somewhat unconventional theological views. I had thought he was a Unitarian (inside joke: from the period before Unitarians became lovers of Mary Oliver's poetry), but now I can't find that he ever officially left the Congregationalist denomination -- that said, his theology seems to me more in tune with 19th century Unitarian/Universalist thinking. (It should be noted that the formal Unitarian church (at least in the US) was founded as a result of schism with the Congregationalists.) He moved to the Italian Riviera in the 1870s and did much of his writing there. Much of McDonald's fiction was essentially religious. I am particularly fond of his children's novels, At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie. He also wrote adult novels, most importantly Phantastes and Lilith.

He also wrote a lot of shorter fiction. The Gifts of the Child Christ and Other Stories, a collection of much of the best of his shorter works (selected by Glenn Edward Sadler). These include a couple of stories I have read before in solo editions: The Light Princess a very funny story about a princess with no gravity, either of spirit or physically; and The Golden Key, a lovely symbolic story about a boy and a girl and their long journey together. (My reviews of those two books can be found here.) Other highlights are The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess, a long story (35,000 words or so) about a spoiled princess and a spoiled shepherd's child and the efforts of an old wise woman to reform them; the title story, about how the daughter of a too serious man and his neglected young wife brings them together after their younger child is stillborn; "The Carasoyn" (or "The Fairy Fleet"), about a young man and his less than enjoyable involvement with a group of fairies and their queen; "The History of Photogen and Nycteris" (or "The Day Boy and the Night Girl"), about two babies kidnapped by an evil fairy, the boy brought up only in daylight, the girl only in darkness; and "The Cruel Painter" is a fine story about a painter who insisted on distorting his scenes to bring out the worst in their subjects, and the young man who falls in love with his daughter and comes to work as his apprentice.

There are quite a few more stories, most quite interesting, roughly evenly divided between fairy tales or fantasies and contemporary tales. Only very rarely does MacDonald moralize to the detriment of his stories, though his stories do quite often make moral points. (And quite explicitly Christian points.) Sadler has also selected quite a few period illustrations, many by Arthur Hughes, many from the original publications of the stories.