Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata

Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata

a review by Rich Horton

Back in High School I tried (probably under the influence of my good friend Bill Sather) in Japanese literature. Not a whole lot, but I know I read Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanazaki, and three novels by the 1968 Nobel Prize Winner, Yasunari Kawabata. Those three novels were Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Master of Go. (I remember looking at books by Yukio Mishima as well, but I didn't read any of them, so my exposure to his work is limited to seeing the movie version of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. As I was 16 at the time (it was the first R rated movie I remember sneaking into a theater to see) my main memories of that movie concern Sarah Miles, and one scene in particular.)

I liked the Kawabata novels, especially Snow Country, a great deal. And so when it recently occurred to me that I haven't covered all that many foreign language novels at this blog, I decided to revisit Snow Country. I ended up borrowing an omnibus edition of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes from the library in lieu of digging through my library for my old paperbacks. The two novels are very short -- Snow Country perhaps 35,000 words in this translation, Thousand Cranes more like 28,000 words. (The translations are by Edward G. Seidensticker.)

Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899 to a reasonably prosperous family, but he was orphaned at the age of 4 and raised by his grandparents, who died when he was still in his teens. He went to a boarding school, and then to Tokyo University, where he studied English and Japanese literature. He soon established something of a reputation with some short fiction, and he also became editor of the university's literary magazine. After graduation he worked as a journalist, as well as starting another literary magazine, and he made a name for himself in literary circles as a somewhat experimental writer. He published a series of highly regarded novels, many of them originally published in several parts over some years. He died in 1972, possibly by suicide, though many think his death was accidental. (He died of gas inhalation.) He was fairly close to the much younger Mishima, who notoriously committed hara kiri in 1970.

Snow Country has a particularly complex publication history. It was originally assembled into a book in 1937, based on seven different stories published in five separate journals beginning in 1935. A couple further stories were published in the '40s, and the final version of the novel appeared in 1947. Shortly before his death, Kawabata published a very short condensation of the novel, "Gleanings from Snow Country", as one of his "Palm-of-the-Hand" stories, very short stories of which he wrote some 140 in his career.

Snow Country concerns a wealthy and rather idle man named Shimamura, presumably some time in the early part of the 20th Century, who comes to a hot springs town in the western part of Japan -- the "snow country" -- and becomes involved with a geisha, Komako. Komako is presented as a somewhat reluctant geisha, working, at first, just as kind of overflow substitute when there are large parties. (Geisha, I have read, were not necessarily prostitutes, but there is no question in this novel that they are, though on further reading it seems that the hot springs geisha -- "Onsen Geisha" -- were often prostitutes, while those in big cities, the higher class sort, were perhaps instead more chaste entertainers -- dancers and musicians and experts in conversation.) The relationship between the two is curious -- Shimamura seems hesitant at first, and Komako somewhat insistent on entering his room, etc. At any rate, the story continues, over a couple of years, as Shimamura seems close to Komako when he visits her town, and then leaves for months, and when he returns things go on as before. It is clear that Shimamura (a married man) feels a vague sense of obligation to Komako, and enjoys her favors, but has no notion of what he can truly be for her, or indeed how to be close to anyone. Komako herself is a sad figure, aware of her shelf life, as it were, desperate, I think, for some relationship that will give her a feeling of self worth and yet not sure what that could be, not sure she is deserving. The resolution turns on another young woman, not quite a geisha, who seems connected to a man Komako may or may not have been involved with, and who Shimamura encounters a few times in a somewhat ambiguous fashion -- at the end, there is a fire, and Komako is seen at the last with the body -- alive or dead, we don't know -- of this other woman in her arms, as Shimamura looks on unable to act.

The writing, even in translation, is lovely. Shimamura and Komako are both well-depicted, very flawed people, neither really able to find a center for their lives. Shimamura's avocation -- independently wealthy, he does not need to work -- is the appreciation of dance, particularly, in his case, Western ballet -- and not as a spectator but by reading books about it. Clearly the implication is that he can get truly close to nothing. Komako drifts as well, and she drinks too much, and she rather distractedly wavers between geisha training and helping her old music teacher and a potential relationship with another man -- she is a lost character as well. It's a determinedly sad novel, in a minor key throughout, and it's hard to explain why it's so impressive, so lovely, but it really is.

Thousand Cranes is very fine work as well. It is the story of another somewhat dilettantish man, Kikuji, and his relationship with a couple of his late father's mistresses, and one of their daughters. It is set a few years after the Second World War. It opens with Kikuji having been summoned to a tea ceremony by Kurimoto Chikako, who had been his father's mistress for a short time, and who since then had served his parents in a variety of small ways. It becomes clear that she is introducing him to a prospective wife, a beautiful young woman named Miss Inamura. But things become complicated when his father's other, more established, mistress, Mrs. Ota, invites herself and her daughter.

Kikuji has a complicated relationship with both older women -- Mrs. Ota, the widow of his father's former business partner, he resented in the traditional fashion -- as a rival to his mother. And Chikako seems a more problematic character, quite a meddler, a liar, a troublesome person in general. After the tea ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota again and somehow finds himself sleeping with her. This relationship continues for a short while, with some apparent shame on both sides, and then Mrs. Ota commits suicide. Meanwhile, he as meets the Inamura girl another time or two, with Chikako constantly warning him against Mrs. Ota -- "the witch" -- and urging him to marry Miss Inamura. But instead he falls into a hesitant relationship with Mrs. Ota's daughter, but this is poisoned as well by a certain curious sense of guilt on both sides, leading to a somewhat ambiguous but rather shocking conclusion.

The conceit of the novel is to present a series of tea ceremonies, each less formal, less impressive. Various tea bowls and other tea ware are also discussed, each with symbolic meaning in context, reflecting Kikuji's relationship with his father (a tea aficionado), and reflecting the post-War changes in Japanese society, the decline of tradition, the changes in women's roles. Kikuji himself is somewhat weak individual, seemingly not in control of his life or his passions. The women are likewise damaged, but perhaps more by the constrictions of society. It's another very fine novel, not to my taste as affecting as Snow Country, but well worth reading.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Old Bestseller: Under the Rose, by Frederic S. Isham

Old Bestseller: Under the Rose, by Frederic S. Isham

a review by Rich Horton

I don't really think this novel was a bestseller. But it was aimed at that side of the market, no doubt. It was an historical novel, published in 1903, a time of considerable popularity for historical novels, a fashion started perhaps by a book I reviewed here some time ago: When Knighthood was in Flower, by "Edwin Caskoden" (Charles Major). That book was one of the first novels published by the Indianapolis firm of Bobbs Merrill, and the book at hand, Under the Rose, was also published by that company.

Frederic Stewart Isham (1865-1922) had a fairly successful career measured by the number of movies made from his novels and plays. Most successful was probably Nothing But the Truth, which was made into multiple movies, perhaps mostly famously a 1941 vehicle for Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, and Edward Arnold. He hasn't retained any reputation, though, and it's hard to find much hard information about him online. He was born in Detroit. He apparently wrote nonfiction about Detroit as early as 1896, but the first reference to a novel I can find is The Strollers, from 1902. Thus Under the Rose may have been his second novel.

My edition appears possibly a first. It was published in January 1903. It's illustrated, quite nicely, by Howard Chandler Christy, one of the great illustrators working at the turn of the 20th Century. Charles Dana Gibson had his "Gibson Girls", Harrison Fisher his "American Beauties", and Howard Chandler Christy his "Christy Girls". Christy is also famous for his painting "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution", for a portrait of Amelia Earhart, and for Navy recruiting posters. That said, the cover illustration for this book seems absurdly inappropriate for a novel set in 16th Century France. Indeed, to my eyes it looks more like the work of Gibson or perhaps Fisher. (The interiors are much more plausible looking for the 16th Century!)

I've previously covered, as noted, When Knighthood Was in Flower, which is set in about 1515 and concerns in part Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor's brief marriage to Louis XII of France, along with (says the novel) an attempt at her seduction by the Dauphin, who became Francis I. Francis I is a major character in Under the Rose, which is set in about 1530. (To complete the story of France in the 16th Century, I've also reviewed The Helmet of Navarre, set in 1593, and concerning Henry IV of France. who was the first of the Bourbon dynasty, though he was related to the Valois.)

Under the Rose opens among the various jesters of King Francis' court, as they welcome a guest, the jester of the Duke of Friedwald. It seems that the King's niece, Louise, has become engaged to the Duke, who is one of the leading vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. This marriage will cement an alliance between France and the Empire, which have been at war for decades. The Duke's jester quicky makes an impression, and makes an enemy of the dwarf Triboulet, who had considered himself Francis' favorite.

Soon the Duke's jester becomes a favorite of the Princess Louise, and it's clear pretty quickly that the two might be falling in love. This is an issue, of course, because Louise must marry who the King desires she marry. This also seems an issue for Jacqueline, her maid, and also a part of the "jester's court". Jacqueline is a gypsy girl, it is thought, who was found in the castle after Francis had taken possession, and sent its previous owner, the Constable Dubrois, into exile (where he soon died).

The Duke soon appears -- he's a very rough-hewn warlike man. We soon figure out -- as does the real Duke's jester -- that he is an imposter -- in fact he is the "Free Baron", Louis of Hochfels, a criminal really, who has used his position at a mountainous pass to raid all the travelers passing through, including those who have carried letters from the Duke of Friedwald to his prospective bride.

The jester and the false Duke are quickly at odds, but the jester's position is precarious. Louise is obedient to her King and agrees to marry the Duke. And the jester is soon imprisoned. What follows is an exciting rescue, spearheaded by Jacqueline, and a dangerous race through France, leading to a confrontation between Charles and the false Duke -- and to the revelation, hardly a surprise to any alert reader, of the true identities of both the jester and Jacqueline.

Much of this is ahistorical, of course, which is OK. And I've skipped a few steps of intrigue. It's really a pretty fun novel, with some nice romantic developments, and a few surprises (most of them easily enough guessed, to be sure). Though the specific events portrayed are not really true to history, the general shape of events is correct. The book takes a very negative view of Francis I, probably more negative than his accomplishments deserved. It's also written in a somewhat too modern style for my taste, though perhaps understandably so, and perhaps my revulsion at the use of the term "terrorist" for Louis of Hochfels (a term that didn't exist until the French Revolution, long after the 16th Century, and a term that has a much different connotation now than it may have had in 1903) might be a tad unfair. It's not at all a great novel, but it does what it tries to do nicely enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Children's books reviewed on this blog

This is the second post I'm making in an attempt to impose some order on the many posts I've made to this blog. In this one I'm posting links to the various "Old Bestsellers" that are actually children's books, a category which has turned into a minor subtheme here. More will be coming, soon enough, including, for example, an eventual post whenever I reread Adam of the Road, a book I loved age 10 or so, a copy of which I found at an estate sale not long ago. And many of the books reviewed here already have similar status -- or are books I'd heard of that I knew were well-remembered children's books.

Sweet William, by Margeurite Bouvet;

Three SF Novels from the Scholastic Book Club;

Penrod, by Booth Tarkington;

The Story-Teller, by Maud Lindsay;

Champion's Choice, by John R. Tunis;

Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam, Jr.;

Space Service, edited by Andre Norton;

The Light Princess and The Golden Key, by George MacDonald;

Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hacklander;

Alice Blythe, Somewhere in England, by Martha Trent;

The Space Pioneers (A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure), by Carey Rockwell;

Bound to Rise, by Horatio Alger, Jr.;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;

Through Space to Mars, by Roy Rockwood;

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Little Known Early Robert Silverberg Novel: Recalled to Life

A Little Known Early Robert Silverberg Novel: Recalled to Life

a review by Rich Horton

As I wrote the last time I covered a Silverberg novel: I'm going to assume readers need little information about Silverberg -- born in 1935, began publishing SF in 1954, first novel in 1955, multiple Hugos and Nebulas, SFWA Grand Master.

During the 1950s Silverberg was an extremely prolific contributor to various science fiction magazines. Among his most regular haunts were Science Fiction Stories (edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes), and two magazines edited by Larry T. Shaw: Science Fiction Adventures and Infinity Science Fiction. The former magazine emphasized longer stories, one or two novellas or even full-length (but fairly short) novels per issues, and Silverberg had a story in every one of the Shaw issues of Science Fiction Adventures (often under pseudonyms like Calvin M. Knox, Ivar Jorgenson, and Alexander Blade). Infinity was a more conventional magazine, and Silverberg fairly regularly published short stories there (he appeared in about half the twenty issues), but only one novel: Recalled to Life, serialized in the June and August 1958 issues. It didn't get book publication until 1962, with a rather highly priced paperback edition from Lancer: 75 cents, which was very high at that time. (Lancer's 1967 reissue was only 50 cents.) Larry Shaw, by the way, was an editor at Lancer, but at least according to Wikipedia, he didn't join the firm until 1963.

I call this novel "little known" but I should mention that, after its somewhat slow process to original book publication, it has been reprinted a number of times: hardcover editions in the '70s from Doubleday in the US and Gollancz in the UK, and paperback editions from Lancer again, and from Panther in the UK, and from Ace; along with a fairly recent Gateway/Orion ebook, and a print version from Armchair Fiction.

(I've taken a closer look, and it seems that Silverberg actually revised Recalled to Life significantly for the 1972 Doubleday edition. I'll have to get a copy of that, and when I do I'll revise this post again to discuss the changes. I find this heartening, because as I was reading I thought, as noted, that the book was particularly ambitious for late '50s Silvberberg, and I wondered if he might have reexamined the theme later.)

Recalled to Life is set in 2033. The main character is James Harker, the former Governor of New York, who has returned to private law practice after his efforts at reforming the state government got him in trouble, including with his own party, the National Liberals. His main client these days is Richard Bryant, the famous astronaut who was the first man on Mars. Bryant is dying, and has made a will all but disinheriting his loser children. That's not the thrust of the novel, however -- that just sets up one enemy for Harker.

He is soon hired by Beller Labs, an outfit which has developed a process to bring someone back to life if they have died in the past 24 hours. They recognize that this will be very controversial, and they want Harker to help them navigate the storm. He agrees to, in part because of his continuing anguish over the drowning death of his very young daughter years before.

The bulk of the rest of the novel concerns the many issues Harker faces: rebellion from a jealous junior researcher at Beller Labs and also a blowhard PR-type who jumps the gun on revealing the process to the public; moral opposition from, for example, the Catholic Church; the mean-spirited an foolishly executed revenge attempts from one of Richard Bryant's sons; and perhaps most importantly, the difficult political questions. The rival party to Harker's Nat Libs, the American Conservative Party, is reflexively opposed, but, to Harker's dismay, the Nat Libs are hardly unified in favor of the new process, in particular Harker's former mentor, aging senator Clyde Thurman.

More importantly to the intellectual core of the novel, the working out of the opposition Harker faces raises many of the real ethical and practical issues with the treatment. Though Harker remains in favor of the reanimation process, he is forced to acknowledge that some of his opponents have valid points: for example, who will be allowed to be reanimated? The process won't be free, so will it be just for the privileged? And, I wondered, should it be restricted to younger people? It's not a rejuvenation process -- if a sick man dies and is reanimated, he'll die again fairly soon most likely. Of course the Church wonders if the reanimated person's soul will return from heaven. Harker gets many letters from people desperately wanting their loved ones to be saved -- clearly a logistical impossibility, but still wrenching. And finally there are the complications of the process: about 1 in 20 attempts fail completely, which is perhaps tolerable, but more scarily, in about 1 case in 6, the body comes back to life but the brain does not, leaving someone called inevitably a "zombie".

Alas, the resolution of the novel takes a highly melodramatic turn. The Beller people, without Harker's knowledge, commit an horrendous crime (which I found unbelievable on several grounds: first, that they could get away with it; second, that they thought is at all acceptable, and, third, that Harker, despite his fury at their actions, countenances the final result.) And, finally, perhaps inevitably, Harker is forced to take a dramatic personal step to sway the tide of public opinion.

I found the novel worthwile reading on the whole, despite the some messed up ending sequence. It's well and soberly written, and it raises some interesting questions, and discusses them reasonably well (though there was plenty more that could have been said about the whole issue). One of the most ambitious of Silverberg's early novels.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Capsule Reviews: Four SF Novels from 2017

Capsules: Four Recent SF Novels

reviews by Rich Horton

One of the "problems" I've had in recent years of SF reading has been keeping up with novels. That's mostly caused by two things (well, three -- a pretty packed day job schedule contributes as well!): a) I try really hard to keep up with the short fiction published in the field, in support of my Locus column, my Best of the Year volume, and in search of reprints for Lightspeed; and b) I've been reading a lot of non-SF, purposefully, including of course a lot of the "old bestsellers" I review at this blog, as well as a lot of older SF (mostly Ace Doubles).

So I was happy to note that over the past few weeks I've read no fewer than four SF novels from 2017. So I figured I'd do a quick post here with capsule reviews of each of them. The unifying factor, perhaps, is that I've used stories by each of these writers in my Best of the Year books.

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory (Knopf, $27.95. 399 pages)

This is my favorite 2017 novel to date. Daryl Gregory has published several first rate books already, and some excellent short fiction. But this book looks like it could be his breakout.

This is about a family of psychics. Or maybe a family of con artists. It's told through the POV of the five surviving members: Teddy Telemachus; his three children, Frankie, Buddy, and Irene; and Irene's teenaged son Matty. The main action is set in June through October 1995. with plenty of flashbacks to the family's previous career -- Teddy meeting his wife Maureen, Maureen's career as a psychic working for the US government, the family's 15 minutes of fame culminating in a disastrous appearance on TV, etc. But everything leads to a culmination in September of 1995, a day which Buddy, who can see the future, has been preparing for all along.

It's a very funny book, but it's also at times heartbreaking. Teddy, we gather quickly, is a con man, a magician; but the rest of the family seems to have real powers, especially Maureen, who can see things at a distance via out of body experience. Her grandson Matty has some like her ability -- complicated by puberty! Frankie has some telekinetic ability, complicated by him being a fuckup. Buddy can see the future, complicated by ... well, I'll let you find that out. And Irene can tell when someone is lying -- complicated by, well, love. Government agents are involved, and mobsters, and a love interest for Irene plus a love interest of sorts for Teddy -- not to mention Buddy and Matty! It's sweet and sad, and wrenching and always absorbing. To me it seems to inhabit above all Michael Chabon territory, while in no way being imitative or derivative. (It's also set in the suburbs of Chicago, which means I recognize the territory -- it's not exactly my home town (a different suburb, Naperville), but it's places that make sense to me ... that doesn't matter to everyone but it worked for me!) I loved it.

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Vintage, $15.95, 216 pages)

Karin Tidbeck has attracted a fair amount of well-deserved attention with her short fiction. She's a Swedish writer, who translates her own work into English. Amatka is her first novel, published in 2012 in Sweden.

It's a very strange novel, and very effectively so. It tells of a woman named Vanja who comes to a city named Amatka. Amatka is one of four colony cities on a new world -- not, we learn slowly, necessarily a planet but a different world, perhaps a different reality. It seems that in this world the thingness of things needs to be maintained by constant affirmation. Indeed, a fifth colony city was apparently destroyed, perhaps because they forgot to assert reality.

Vanja is in many ways estranged from her society already -- her father was exiled for political reasons; she is a Lesbian, and, more importantly it seems, not interested in having chidren; and she remains inquisitive. In her new city she becomes involved with something like a revolutionary movement -- which seems aimed at accepting the different nature of reality in this word rather than resisting it -- but she is torn because her new lover is not interested in revolution.

The book is fascinating on numerous grounds -- the central idea is cool, Vanja's love affair is movingly and believably portrayed, the oppressive central government is a satisfying evil (and not too overwhelmingly evil), the effect of this reality on art is really well-depicted -- and the nature of this world's nature is an effective element as well. I thought the weak point was the conclusion, which was, as Alvaro Zinos-Amaro put it, emotionally effective but intellectually underwhelming.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss (Saga, $24.99, 400 pages)

Theodora Goss is one of my favorite writers of short fiction bar none. This is her first full-length novel, though she has published one previous book-length story, probably a novella in length, The Thorn and the Blossom, a very sweet and enjoyable love story told from the point of view of both lovers in dos-a-dos fashion and binding.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter is a good deal of fun. The main characters are a group of women, all daughters (or creations) of fictional Victorian mad scientists: Mary Jekyll, her half-sister (as she eventually learns) Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau (the puma woman of The Island of Dr. Moreau), Justine Frankenstein (created to be a Bride of Frankenein's Monster (though in the original Shelley novel she was never actually made)), and Beatrice Rappaccini. The action occurs after the death of Mary's mother, at which time she learns of the existence of Diana Hyde, and also of some secrets about her father's experiments, and his scientific associates, that had been kept from her.

Her efforts to rescue Diana from a home for fallen women lead her by happenstance to helping Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the Whitechapel murders. Soon the whole crew is involved, leading eventually to a satisfying and exciting solution. The story is interspersed with sections detailing the back stories of each of the characters. A further device is that the manuscript, evidently composed by Catherine, is interrupted by often snarky comments by each of the women.

As I said, it's a good deal of fun. And it has at its core a strong idea -- the curious fascination of Victorian (and pre-Victorian, in the case of Shelley) writers with what could be called human monsters. All this is tied in, I think, with the evolutionary theories in development, and then under debate, at that time.

So, a pretty enjoyable book. I did have some reservations -- it's kind of a romp. Which is fine -- that's a perfectly good thing for a book to be. But in the process, the plot is on the implausible side at times. There are some liberties taken with chronology, but that's OK -- it's within the author's remit in a book like this to shift disparate timelines a bit. The language, however, is too modern -- I don't expect a perfect echo of Victorian prose -- though, as I'm reading Middlemarch now I can tell you that you could hardly do better than to emulate George Eliot's prose -- but there some really anachronistic turns of phrase that just grated on me. That's a nitpick, however.

Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor, $24.99, 287 pages)

Carrie Vaughn made her reputation with a long series of Urban Fantasy novels about a werewolf DJ named Kitty Norville. Those were plenty enjoyable stuff. Since then she's published a variety of novels, and all along she's published lots of really fine short fiction, both Fantasy and SF.

Martians Abroad is a YA novel, seemingly the first in a series, though its plot is resolved quite acceptably in this book. It's told by Polly Newton, the daughter of the Director of the Mars Colony. Polly wants to be a starship pilot, but her mother has different plans for her, and for her rather spooky brother, Charles. They are packed off to the Galileo Academy on Earth, a very prestigious school. (It is supposedly a merit-based school, and it takes Polly rather a while to figure out that "merit=influence", mostly, and that even she and Charles have "influence" in that their mother is the Director of Mars Colony.)

Polly and Charles encounter a lot of prejudice on Earth, as the first Martians to attend Galileo Academy. All this is affecting, but maybe a bit too obvious. They also run into a series of really dangerous accidents on different school activities -- the day only saved by Polly's naive heroism, and Charles' calculated suspiciousness and associated cleverness. Things culminate on the Moon with an accident that's not just dangerous but likely fatal. The novel turns a bit on the revelation of the actual villain -- who turns out to be an at first unexpected but really rather obvious suspect.

I did enjoy this, and I'll be glad to read more stories about Polly. That said, it's a bit slight, and it's definitely pure YA -- which isn't per se a bad thing, but which does, I think, limit the book a bit. (There are YA books which aren't pure YA -- which, if you will, transcend the category.)

Friday, August 11, 2017

"Classic" books reviewed on this blog

I am personally interested in where I've gone with this blog. It began as a place for me to review a particular set of books -- bestsellers (mostly forgotten) from the early part of the 20th Century. And that remains its major focus. But I've also included a lot of reviews of a long time interest of mine: Ace Doubles. And I've also snuck in some reviews of books that really weren't bestsellers, and are often more recent (including some very recent novels, many SF), and some reviews of out and out classics (that may or may not have been bestsellers). Finally, I've covered some SF newsy subjects: convention reports, for one, and analyses of the Hugo (and Nebula) award ballots.

So, mainly for my satisfaction, I've organized the posts to date in a variety of categories, that I will summarize in a few posts.

The first category is what I'm calling Classics. I stretch this category quite a bit, to include works by major writers that might not quite be "classics", and ambitious literary works that haven't really become "classics". I ended up being surprised, and rather pleased, at how many of my posts fit this category (39 total) -- and it should be said that I have used this blog as opportunity to goad me into reading some books I have meant to read for some time. (Coming soon (soon as in perhaps a couple of months): a post  on Middlemarch.)

(Each of the titles is a link to the original post.)

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh;

Middlemarch, by George Eliot;

Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata;

Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray;

Tremor of Intent, by Anthony Burgess;

Casuals of the Sea, by William McFee;

The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster;

Washington Square, by Henry James;

Guard Your Daughters, by Diana Tutton;

The Living End, by Stanley Elkin;

Lord Malquist and Mister Moon, by Tom Stoppard;

The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin;

Party Going, by Henry Green;

The Man Who Got Away, by Sumner Locke Elliott;

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton;

Major stories by Edith Wharton: "Roman Fever", "Xingu", "The Eyes", "Autre Temps ..." and "The Long Run", "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic;

Norwood, by Charles Portis;

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Bend Sinister, by Vladimir Nabokov;

The Floating Opera, by John Barth;

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa;

Tempest-Tost, by Robertson Davies;

The New Arabian Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson;

A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather;

Engine Summer, by John Crowley;

A God and His Gifts, by Ivy Compton-Burnett;

A Diversity of Creatures, by Rudyard Kipling;

The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter de Vries;

Finnley Wren, by Philip Wylie;

Collected Short Fiction, by Kingsley Amis;

Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor;

Venusberg, by Anthony Powell;

Heyday, by W. M. Spackman;

Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany;

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson;

The Queen Pedauque, by Anatole France;

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley;

Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge;

Portrait of Jennie and One More Spring, by Robert Nathan;

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Old Bestseller: The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Old Bestseller: The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

a review by Rich Horton

This will be one of my longer reviews -- I apologize, but to quote Pascal, I didn't have the time (or, really, the energy) to make it shorter.

Was this 1852 book a bestseller? I don't know -- and I don't know of any lists kept for that period -- but I suspect it sold quite well -- Thackeray was a very successful writer, and very well known and widely celebrated in his day.

These days Thackery is of course still widely read, and remembered as one of the greatest of the Victorian novelists. But I would say that most of his reputation nowadays, at least superficially, is centered on one novel: Vanity Fair. One other novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, is reasonably well-remembered because it was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick. But his own favorite among his novels, and a critical favorite as well, at least during the 19th Century, was Henry Esmond. (For example, Anthony Trollope called it "the greatest novel in the English language".)

I decided to read it on almost a whim. I had picked up an old Modern Library reprint of it some time ago. (It's almost a Centenary reprint -- my edition is from 1950.) Cleaning up my bookshelves recently I happened across it, and wondered if I should read it, but then decided to pass -- I figured I didn't have time to tackle such a long book -- it's in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, over 600 pages in my copy. That same day, Gregory Feeley mentioned Thackeray in a Facebook post, and I mentioned by the by that I had just glanced at Esmond but put it back. Greg urged me to go ahead and read it. And I thought, I've read a lot of pretty trivial books recently as part of this Old Bestseller series -- why not read something with real heft? I am very happy I did.

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in India in 1811 -- his father was a secretary for the British East India company. William came to England in 1815 after his father's death. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He spent the next several years more or less wasting his time -- some travel, some apparently desultory studies of law and art, failed attempts at starting two newspapers. His family had money, but Thackery lost some of it by his own efforts and more after a couple of Indian banks failed. So upon his marriage in 1836 he had to support his family, and he turned to writing. He wrote for various magazines (Fraser's and Punch among them), doing reviews, satirical sketches, and some travel writing. He published a couple of novels (Catherine and Barry Lyndon) before becoming famous with the publication of Vanity Fair in 1848. He and his wife had three daughters. One died in infancy. The eldest, Anna Isabella, became a well known novelist in her own right. The youngest married the famous critic Leslie Stephen. After the birth of their third child, Thackeray's wife succumbed to depression, and eventually had to be committed to an asylum. Thackeray died quite young, in 1863. (Indeed his wife, still mentally ill, outlived him by over 30 years.)

Besides the novels already mentioned, in his lifetime Thackeray published Pendennis (1848-1850), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-1859), and The Adventures of Philip (1862). The Virginians is a sequel to Henry Esmond, concerning Esmond's two grandsons, who fought on opposite sides in the Revolutionary War. He also wrote a shorter satirical fantasy, The Rose and the Ring, several lesser known pseudonymous Christmas novels, such as Mrs. Perkins' Ball, and numerous other books: satire, travel writing, parodies, etc.

As the dates of some of the novels mentioned above might suggest, many of Thackeray's novels were published first as serials, and (like Dickens) he often wrote them in parallel with their publication. He felt that this was harmful to their artistic unity, and one reason for his preference for Henry Esmond among his own works was that he wrote it entirely before publication. I don't think it was serialized before book publication (though I could be wrong). Indeed, the original book version was set in a typeface from the 1740s (complete with "s"s that looked like "f"s), the ostensible period of composition of Esmond's "memoirs". The full title of the novel is The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne. Written by Himself.

The novel was published in three volumes (as common at that time), and the three books are well-divided so as to cover neatly separated parts of Esmond's life (his youth first, his military career second, and his love affair with his cousin, along with his efforts to establish James, the Old Pretender, as Queen Anne's heir, in the third book). The novel opens with an introduction, "The Esmonds of Virginia", ostensibly written by Henry's daughter in 1778, some years after Esmond's death. It is a neat bit of introduction -- telling us how the story will end, offering much praise to Esmond, and even settling a score or two with the half-sister of Henry's daughter, one of the most important characters in the novel.

Then we move to Esmond's own account. His story begins (after a short look at his family history) with a momentous day in 1690 -- the arrival at the Esmond estate of Castlewood of its new Lord, the Fourth Viscount Castlewood. The Third Viscount has just died. Henry, now about 12, has been living there for a few years after he, the illegitimate son of the Viscount, was retrieved from his first guardians. Henry is a quiet, somewhat po-faced, and studious boy. He soon meets the Countess and her young daughter Beatrix. Lady Castlewood is only 19, though she has two children. Beatrix is perhaps 3 or 4. Lady Castlewood is beautiful and very kind, and insists that Henry stay with them, and be raised as another son of the family. Henry immediately forms a close and loyal attachment to her. Up to this point Henry has been raised Catholic, under the influence, mostly, of the scheming Jesuit Father Holt, an associate of the Third Viscount, who used the Viscount's money and influence as best he could to resist the ascension of William and Mary to the throne, and subsequently to plot for the return of the exiled King James II. (And, indeed, Henry's father's death happened at the Battle of Boyne, the final defeat of James II.) In succeeding years, Henry is converted to Protestantism, but remains a loyal Jacobite and Tory, though mostly not a very active one. Indeed, throughout the book, Thackeray (a Whig himself) rather has his cake and eats it too -- portraying in Henry Esmond a man who supports the Jacobite side for reasons of family loyalty (and to some extent principle), but who constantly acknowledges the superior qualities of William IV and later George I to their rivals such as James II and the Old Pretender, called by some James III. Likewise Esmond is very complimentary to many of his Whig rivals.

Henry's young career, then, is portrayed -- his earlier education by Father Holt, then his first years with the new Viscount, his wife and children -- and Henry's attempts to help educate the younger chldren. Henry finally is given enough money to go to Cambridge -- the plan is that he will become a clergyman and get the living at Castlewood. In the mean time we are shown the deterioration of the marriage of Lord and Lady Castlewood. I thought this one of the best parts of the book -- it seemed emotionally real, and believable, and only too familiar, as well as something of a commentary on the treatment of women in that society.

The critical episode that concludes the first segment of the book -- and also concludes Henry's college career -- is the murder by the despicable Lord Mohun (an historical figure apparently quite as bad a person as portrayed by Thackeray) of Lord Castlewood. Henry acts as Lord Castlewood's second, and is sent to prison (duelling was illegal). Mohun, meanwhile, is convicted of murder and then essentially pardoned because he is a member of the House of Lords.

The second part, then, is primarily focussed on Henry's military career, which is on the whole fairly successful. Henry fights, over a number of years, in the War of the Spanish Succession. The key General for England in this war was the Duke of Marlborough, and Esmond's rather harsh portrayal of Marlborough is one of the controversial elements of the novel. In Esmond's view (and perhaps Thackeray's?) Marlborough was a brilliant military man but cynical and an opportunist and unwilling to allow any credit to go to anyone but him (or those who could go him political good). Esmond also is quite honest and regretful of the terrible toll of war on the civilian populations in the way. That particular war, despite a great deal of English success on the battlefield, ended in sort of a dispiriting draw, which seems appropriate to the themes of the novel.

This part also discusses Henry's friendship with Richard Steele (of Addison and Steele), whom he meets first when Steele is in the Army, and later becomes close to while Steele and Addison are writing the Spectator. Addison is given some play as well. Esmond also makes a critical discovery -- in fact, he is not a bastard -- his father had married Henry's mother before Henry was born, though he then abandoned her, and she left the baby with his first guardians and entered a nunnery. Henry makes the noble decision not to contest his inheritance -- in great part because of his love for the Lady Castlewood and her children, Beatrix and Frank, who is now the Fifth Viscount Castlewood. And, indeed, Henry and Frank spend a great deal of time together in the Army, and Frank ends up marrying a Belgian woman.

Finally the third section primarily deals with two aspects: Henry's rather one-sided love affair with his cousin Beatrix, and Henry's involvement with a plot to have the so-styled James III come to England as Queen Anne is dying, hoping that she will name him her heir. It is really no spoiler to say that neither affair comes to a successful end from Henry's point of view -- except that from another point of view -- the older Henry's, for one! -- both affairs end in very much the way they should have. It is historical fact, of course, that Anne was succeeded by George I of Hanover -- and Esmond points out at length his opinion that George was by far the better man, and better King, than James would have been. Henry is a Tory, but Thackeray was a Whig, and Thackeray has his main character, despite his nominal Toryism, promote the Whig side at almost every chance. Henry's political views, and his Jacobitism, are seen as purely the result of family loyalty -- his personal inclinations are clearly for the Whigs, and for William and Mary, Anne, and the Hanovers.

As for his affair with Beatrix, this is one of the most wonderful aspects of this book. Henry is enchanted with her from the moment he sees her as a woman, instead of as his young girl cousin. And Beatrix never seems to see him as anything but her loyal and rather dour cousin -- the boy who tried to teach her Latin and other subjects when she was a child, the rather prudish and overserious adult. But over many years she remains Henry's object of desire -- even as he knows that she will not make anyone happy. Beatrix herself has several serious -- and rich -- suitors, eventually settling on the Duke of Hamilton, a much older man and a widower. Yet this too comes to grief at the hands of the evil Lord Mohun (another actual historical incident). But after all this, Henry -- exiled to America after his part in the plot to put James III on the throne -- marries Beatrix' mother, and Henry's quasi-stepmother, Rachel, the Dowager Countess of Castlewood, and they live happily for many years in Virginia.

That's rather a strange resolution (though it's something we know from the beginning of the novel, as it is revealed in the introduction). It has been clear for a long time that Rachel is in love with Henry -- Henry's own feelings are less clear. Surely he loves Rachel, but much of that love seems more as that of a son. And surely Rachel is the better woman than Beatrix. Yet -- even this is ambiguous. For our source on this is Henry himself -- and indeed our source on Beatrix' worthiness as Henry's object of desire is in great part her mother -- whose motives are in question. And, indeed, Beatrix' rejection of Henry is perhaps not so clear -- there is a significant scene in which she complains to Henry that he keeps trying to prove himself worthy of her love, when perhaps what she really wanted was a man who wouldn't take no for an answer. The whole question of the truth of this triangle is one of the fascinating and strange aspects of this novel.

At any rate, as must be clear, I loved this book. I haven't discussed the prose much -- but it is, to my taste, magnificent. It is Victorian prose, of course -- the sentences are long and complex, but perfectly structured. As such it may not be to the taste of many modern readers, but for me it works beautifully. The characters, too, including the historical personages, come entirely to life. The incidents are fascinating, sometimes hard to believe. The Henry/Beatrix affair is emotionally wholly believable, and the relationship between Henry and his eventual wife, Rachel, is quite strange but also rings true to me -- and is quite moving. My description is perhaps too prosy and has too much plot summary -- though much more happens than I mention! And, as with most great novels, there is a fair amount of comedy as well. I recommend it very highly.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A neglected recent SF novel: In the Hall of the Martian King, by John Barnes

Not so Old but sadly all but forgotten: In the Hall of the Martian King, by John Barnes

a review by Rich Horton

I have really enjoyed almost everything I've read by John Barnes (born 1957, so two years older than me, and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis). Barnes seems to me an example of a really good SF writer who for one reason or another has never quite hit it big. Which isn't to say he hasn't got some positive notice -- he's had a couple or three Nebula and Hugo nominations, and he's certainly a well-known SF writer. I first really noticed him (though I'd been reading him already) with the novelette that became the opening of his Thousand Cultures series, "Canso de Fis de Jovent". That's a beautiful story of a society on another planet explicitly based on the Occitan culture (Oc in Occitan as in the "Langue D'Oc", the Romance language spoken in Southern France and in Catalonia, similar to Catalan and French -- the beautiful folk songs collected by Jacque Canteloube as Chants Des Auvergne are in Auvergnois, one of hte Langue D'Oc dialects). The novels in the series chronicle what happens to the Thousand Cultures of human-coloinized space when they are forcibly united after the invention of the "springer" (matter transmitter). But I digress. I liked those books a lot. My favorite Barnes novel, however, is The Sky So Big and Black, a heartbreaking a terribly scary story set on Mars -- in my opinion one of the best SF novels of this millennium, and one of the most unjustly ignored. He's also written some tremendous short fiction -- the best of which may be a remarkable time travel story, "Things Undone".

Another of his projects was a series of (at least at first) YA novels set in a fascinatingly crowded 36th Century Solar System. The series looked like it was planned to continue for several books, maybe to end up as sort of a travelogue of that System, but it stopped at the third book, not really coming to an overall resolution. Still, the books are a lot of fun, and I wish he'd been able to continue them.

This is the review I did in 2003 for SF Site of the third (and last) novel in the series, written while I still though there would be more books in it.

Here is the third novel in John Barnes's ongoing chronicle of the life and times of Jak Jinnaka, a young man in a widely inhabited 36th Century Solar System. The previous two novels are The Duke of Uranium (2002) and A Princess of the Aerie (2003). The first book seemed, in many ways, an hommage to the Heinlein juveniles, with explicit echoes of Starship Troopers, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Have Space Suit, Will Travel. But as Jak grows older, the series has grown darker, more cynical, and decidedly less appropriate for a Young Adult audience. The stories remain great fun, though, at times a romp, at times something more serious -- certainly a set of books I will keep searching out. [Or would have, had the series continued.]

Jak is a citizen of the Hive, a huge space habitat at the Earth/Sun L5 point. In the previous books, we have followed his career as a part-time secret agent, and somewhat of a celebrity, due to his involvement in a couple of high-profile adventures. As this book opens, he has graduated from the Hive's Public Service Academy, and taken a job as Vice Procurator of the Hive's base on the Martian moon Deimos. At the same time he is secretly an agent of Hive Intelligence. His life is further complicated by his continued conditioned lust for his former girlfriend, the sadistic Princess Shyf of Greenworld, a nation of the Aerie (at the Earth/Sun L4 point). All he wants is to be cured of this conditioning, and to get a more exciting job. But his bosses at Hive Intel have a use for him in his present state and position.

The crisis driving the main action of In the Hall of the Martian King is the discovery of a lifelog of Paj Nakasen, the originator of the "Wager", a quasi-religious set of principles that lies at the heart of 36th Century human society. This lifelog was discovered at an archaeological dig in one of many tiny Martian nations. The Hive wants this document, and further, Hive Intelligence wants it separately from the more public Hive. Greenworld wants it, and Princess Shyf is flying to Mars, hoping to use her hold on Jak to gain possession. The Martian King who nominally owns the lifelog wants proper compensation. And there are other players. To make Jak's life harder still, he is ordered to obtain the document for Hive Intel, but to deflect the credit to Clarbo Waynong, a particularly stupid member of a highly placed Hive family. And he must balance the personal and professional desires of his old friend Dujuv, a roving Consul for the Hive on Mars; his Uncle and guardian Sib, who is coming to Mars for his 200th birthday celebration; and the great-great-granddaughter of his current boss on Deimos, who has been seconded to him to gain work experience.

All this leads to an amusing series of comedies of errors, as various attempts are made to obtain (by fair means or foul) the lifelog. Much of the book is rather funny, and much is quite exciting. Barnes gives us an impressive set-piece or two while the McGuffin is tussled over. But it's not all funny -- there is serious speculation about the proper organization of society, and there is some wrenching tragedy as well. Princess Shyf is a truly vicious character, and her involvement is hardly uplifting. Good people die. And the information in the lifelog itself turns out to have potentially catastrophic repercussions for Jak's society.

As with all the novels in this series, the wheels-within-wheels of the plot are almost exhausting, and not quite believable. But Jak is an interesting and ambiguous character, well worth reading about. The action of the books is quite enjoyable, even if not always what it seems on the surface. Barnes tackles some interesting ideas, though I think he stacks the decks of his arguments on occasion. The background details of the social order, the technological underpinning, and the varied cultures of the 36th Century Solar System are just delightfully presented. I'm really enjoying these novels.