I had expected Wandering Ghost to be a standard biography, but the number of long passages taken from Hearn's writings made me wonder what the author'...moreI had expected Wandering Ghost to be a standard biography, but the number of long passages taken from Hearn's writings made me wonder what the author's intent was. At least half (or more) of the book is comprised of these lengthy passages from Hearn's newspaper work and other writings.
At times these quotes serve to move the book forward, but more often than not they bog it down, as in the inclusion of an entire newspaper story about a sensational murder -- some 13 pages that, while they served as a good illustration of Hearn's more florid prose style, served very little purpose biographically. The quoted passages are so numerous and at times so extraneous that it is frustrating to read this book as a biography. It's especially irksome when a five- or six-page lengthy quote is used when a one- or two-paragraph one would have easily sufficed.
Perhaps the problem is that I didn't pay sufficient attention to the publisher's description of Wandering Ghost as containing "generous selections" from Hearn's work, but even that did not prepare me for the amount of quoted material. Given the richness of the subject and wealth of material that Hearn left behind, it seems a shame that a more lucid biographical account of his life was not attempted.(less)
There's a lot more to Sax Rohmer than his Fu Manchu novels. Some years back, I bought a...more(From my Amazon.com review):
Early 20th Century Sensation Novel
There's a lot more to Sax Rohmer than his Fu Manchu novels. Some years back, I bought a cache of Rohmer's books published by A.L. Burt in the teens and twenties, some from the Fu Manchu series, but others with delightfully lurid titles such as The Golden Scorpion, The Green Eyes of Bast, and The Dream Detective, the latter featuring the wondrous Moris Klaw, a blind detective with extra-sensory powers.
From time to time I dip into this reservoir for a completely escapist read. These novels, despite being dated and notoriously full of racial stereotypes, fairly pop off the page. Rohmer knew how to spin a yarn, and Bat Wing is no exception. The tale involves a haughty Spanish colonel and a secret too dark, too deep, to divulge. Rohmer's detective hero, Paul Harvey, is in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, and of course he has a trusted friend (who doubles as the narrator much as Dr. Watson does). Together they unravel the mystery, encountering voodoo rites, vampire bats, an Edgar Allen Poe-esque writer, and other fantastic developmentss en route to the sensational ending. (less)
If you enjoyed Katherine Hepburn's spunky performance in "The African Queen" or delight when Elizab...more(From my Amazon.com review):
A most remarkable woman
If you enjoyed Katherine Hepburn's spunky performance in "The African Queen" or delight when Elizabeth Peters' fictional Amelia Peabody prods a villain with her trusty umbrella, you will undoubtedly enjoy the real adventures of Mary Kingsley in Africa. At thirty years of age, her parents having both died, the sheltered Miss Kingsley set off for the continent that had for so long ruled her imagination. Setting herself up as a trader in West Africa, she set out across treacherous swamps and uncharted regions, going where few white men - let alone women - had ever been.
Kingsley wrote of her travels with a self-deprecating wit, impaling many of the racial and cultural prejudices of her day. She vastly preferred, for example, the uncoverted "cannibal Fans" to the tribes influenced by missionaries. She distrusted the motives of the "civilizing" European forces, with good reason.
My copy of this affordable Everyman edition, ably edited and introduced by Elspeth Huxley, is thick with favorite underlined passages. She writes of harrowing experiences as if she were recounting events at an ice cream social. Indeed, invariably dressed in proper Victorian garb throughout all her travels, she once escaped impalement in a game trap set with spikes - her voluminous skirts saved her. Of an eight-foot crocodile attempting to climb into her canoe, whom Kingsley dealt a repelling blow with a paddle, she remarked, "This was only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners."
Travelling without the vast entourage that other explorers, such as Stanley, seemed to find necessary, she possessed an independence which bordered on eccentricity. She was, as Elspeth Huxley notes, at heart a lone wolf, always preferring to go her own way and make her own judgements about those she encountered. The character of this indomitable, fascinating woman shines through her account of her travels. (less)
Droll and delightful Osbert Lancaster's illustrated tale of a reluctant crusader who has greatness thrust upon him is a classic tale of an underdog who...moreDroll and delightful Osbert Lancaster's illustrated tale of a reluctant crusader who has greatness thrust upon him is a classic tale of an underdog who comes out on top. Best known for his cartoons which appeared in the Daily Express and his work as an illustrator, Lancaster also had an inimitable prose style, dry and tongue in cheek. In The Saracen's Head, the timid hero, Willie de Littlehampton, is the black sheep in a family of military heroes. Thrust quite unprepared into King Richard's crusade in the Holy Land, by a series of unlikely events, Willie ends up besting El Babooni, the infidel champion, and carrying the royal standard up the walls of a fortress.
Ostensibly written for children, this slim volume is probably best appreciated by adults, who can better appreciate the wry pokes at notions of military glory. However, both children and adults will enjoy Lancaster's charming illustrations, which feature his trademark whimsical touches. (less)
In 1934, Patrick Synge travelled on an expedition sponsored by the British Museum...more(From my Amazon.com review):
Worth tracking down this out-of-print gem
In 1934, Patrick Synge travelled on an expedition sponsored by the British Museum of Natural History to the Ruwenzori range in East Africa, purported to be the "mountains of the moon" spoken of by Herodotus. Synge, a botanist, was immediately enchanted by the place. His book is, in large part, an enthusiastic and good-natured account of the things that most impressed him. Being a botanist, his most vivid writing concerns plants, but I must say that seldom have I read more captivating descriptions of local scenery, flora, and fauna. Synge was but 24 when he went on the expedition, and his descriptions exude youthful high spirits and delight in being afoot in a new country.
From the beginning, Synge seems to pick up on some of the native's feeling for the mountain as an animate, living presence. At first he seems mildly patronizing about this attitude of superstitious nature-worship on the part of the porters, but later he seems to fall under the spell of the mountain himself:
"Ruwenzori seems the only mountain which we visited which has a definite personality; it was the only mountain which really had something to say to the traveller: sometimes the word was incredibly hostile, like a terrifying ogre to a small child; sometimes it was a friendly welcome, dignified and courteous, as some beautiful but elderly lady welcoming her grandchildren. Although the silence was immense, we never felt the mountain was passive. It was awake and watched our every movement... It is a feeling partly induced by the bizarreness of vegetation, by snaky and luxuriant growth combined with mist, damp, and cold; but it is also a feeling of personality, aliveness, resident in the mountain, something part of it and not entirely dependent on a superficial covering of vegetation. It is a feeling not only of mystery and weirdness, but also of allurement and stimulation, which spurs on the traveller and will always summon him back again."
No doubt you've gleaned from the above passage the romantic, lyrical quality of Synge's writing, which is far from the dry field notes of your ordinary botanist. This poetic quality comes to the fore when he describes his beloved plants. He imbues them with almost human characteristics, and gushes boyishly about each new day's finds.
There is a quality of "sympathetic irony", too, in the way that Synge recounts the mishaps of the expedition, buoyed by his native optimism. The one note of melancholy that crept into my reading of this book was my reflection that, at the time that Synge visited this region, it was a land of unforetold promise; now, alas, it is a land of collapsed hopes. (less)
The inimitable Edith Sitwell, in her jewelled prose, weaves together the threads of assorted strange personages, and th...moreNo mere catalog of eccentricity
The inimitable Edith Sitwell, in her jewelled prose, weaves together the threads of assorted strange personages, and the effect is hypnotic. The approach is poetic, oblique, and perhaps not to everyone's taste - and if it were, would you be at all interested? I, for one, was enchanted by her descriptions of, for example, the amphibious Lord Rokeby, the Ornamental Hermits, the dandy Romeo Coates, the rascally William Huntington "the coal-heaver Preacher", the intrepid Squire Waterton, and the ingenious Princess Caraboo, among dozens of others.
Such understated whimsy within these pages! Such a singular philosophy bound these disparate lives! Read, for example, of the rich Miss Beswick, whose sole concern was that, having passed on, she might not realize it, and that her death "might prove to be only an illusion, a dreamless sleep." And so she left a large sum of money to a certain doctor and his family, "on condition that the doctor should pay her a visit every morning, after what appeared to uninstructed persons, to be her death, in order that he might be assured of the reality of this." Dame Edith dryly notes, "When the Doctor died, the mummified Miss Beswick, that candidate for immortality, was removed to the Lying-in Hospital."
It's Edith Sitwell's droll, ornate prose, moreso even than the picturesque eccentrics, that make this a book to savor, to read bits of aloud, in the small hours of the night. (less)
Those who have a romanticized image of Beryl Markham after reading West with the Night and want to keep that image would do well to keep away from thi...moreThose who have a romanticized image of Beryl Markham after reading West with the Night and want to keep that image would do well to keep away from this book. It's a tell-all -- and there is much to tell -- as Markham was apparently rather promiscuous and at times rather callous and self-serving.
Still, I have to say I'm glad I read the book, for it casts light on a very complex person. Once again, here's an object lesson in how the very driven can also be, in many ways, rather unlikeable. However, I do think that Trzebinski may have deliberately been out to do a bit of a hatchett job on Markham -- or it any rate it sure seems that way. I may eventually read another, less scandal-prone, biography of Markham to help round out the subject a bit more.
I have to wonder, though, if Markham had been a man if she'd had been the subject of such an unflattering biography. She undoubtedly slept around a lot, was ornery as hell, and was a very poor parent. How many famous men does that describe? (less)
In the third of his six "Mapp and Lucia" novels, Benson shifts the scene from the village of Riseholme to that of Tilling. Here the social queen is no...moreIn the third of his six "Mapp and Lucia" novels, Benson shifts the scene from the village of Riseholme to that of Tilling. Here the social queen is not the redoubtable Lucia Lucas of the first two books but rather one Elizabeth Mapp, who rules with rather a heavier and more judgemental hand.
Mapp is one of the great unlikeable-but-fascinating characters in all of comic literature. She is nosey, pretentious, mean spirited, and small minded. Yet she's as fascinating as a cobra. Benson, of course, is setting readers up for the great battle of the titans that ensues in the fourth book, when Lucia moves to Tilling and goes head-to-head with Mapp. Before doing that, however, Benson gives free rein to Miss Mapp in this novel, coincidentally introducing the denizens of Tilling. We meet the whiskey-and-golf-loving Major Benjamin Flint, his cohort Captain Puffin (who drowns in a bowl of soup), the eccentric and dandified Mr Wyse, who marries pretentious Susan Poppitt MBE, the unabashedly butch artist "Quaint" Irene Coles, and hapless and bumbling Godiva Plaistow, along with the affected Scotch-speaking Padre and his "Wee Wifie." These memorably eccentric characters more or less comprise Tilling society.
Describing the plot of a Benson novel makes not a great deal of sense as the books are very episodic. However, the basic set scene invariably revolves around Miss Mapp (or someone else) trying to lord it over others, appear to be more than one truly is, or save face, with the requisite amounts of gossip, idle speculation, and unbridled envy thrown in for good measure. Despite the all-too-human failings of the Tilling-ites, Benson is never spiteful; instead he seems to positively relish his characters' imperfections and quirks. Keen observers of human foibles, particularly anglophiles, are especially susceptible to this intimate little world.
As Nancy Mitford wrote in her famous introduction to these novels, "None of them [Riseholme or Tilling residents] could be described as estimable, and they are certainly not very interesting, yet they are fascinated by each other and we are fascinated by them....The art of these books lies in their simplicity. The jokes seem quite obvious and are often repeated: we can never have enough of them."
Indeed, those who fall under the spell of these delightful books can never have enough of them. I've read the series at least four times over, with many forays into Benson's other works, but I inevitably end up coming back to the Mapp and Lucia saga itself. (less)
Battle of the titans! This is probably my favorite book in the Mapp and Lucia series. When Lucia moves in to Mapp's "territory," sparks are bound to f...moreBattle of the titans! This is probably my favorite book in the Mapp and Lucia series. When Lucia moves in to Mapp's "territory," sparks are bound to fly -- and they do, spectacularly, but of course overlaid with a layer of civility that masks true feeling. Benson is better at dissecting (to hilarious effect) the petty jealousies and need for societal approval that drive us all. He does it in a way that leaves no doubt that he's fonder of people with these flaws than those with aspirations to be above it all. (less)
One of Benson's best "non-Lucia" books, with a particularly memorable cast of characters, particularly novelist Susan Leg and bourgeois doyenne Mrs. M...moreOne of Benson's best "non-Lucia" books, with a particularly memorable cast of characters, particularly novelist Susan Leg and bourgeois doyenne Mrs. Mantrip. He gets major mileage from a few transparent plot devices that, somehow, never pall. (Only Benson seems to be able to pull this sort of thing off -- it falls flat for lesser mortals).
Another peculiarity -- or distinction -- of Fred's novels (yes, we Besonites fancy we are on a first-name basis with him) is that he creates such thoroughly unlikeable characters, yet we become strangely fond of them, becoming as engrossed in them as they are (inevitably) in themselves. We can't wait to see what they'll do next.
Secret Lives' hinges on a showdown between two strong-willed and rather ludicrous women, each determined to best the other. This, of course, is basically the formula for his Mapp and Lucia books, but it doesn't diminish the comic effect. This book made me laugh out loud, even on repeat readings. What can I say? Just read it. (less)
This book is my cure for the doldrums -- a comic masterpiece. Granted, it helps to be an anglophile and a bit of a misanthrope to boot, but the antics...moreThis book is my cure for the doldrums -- a comic masterpiece. Granted, it helps to be an anglophile and a bit of a misanthrope to boot, but the antics of the villagers of Riseholme, led (or dominated) by the immortal Lucia always make me realize just how absurdly delicious life can be.
Once a Luciaphile, always a Luciaphile. It's a select but oddly inclusive group, I've found over the years. Most of my closest friends are Benson devotees. And those folks who aren't? Well, let's just say I don't feel much of a connection to them. This book is, in the words of a recent New York Times op ed piece, a "deal breaker" for me.
Every few years I reread the entire six-book Lucia saga over again. This first volume in the saga was as delightful as I remembered it.(less)
This was a case of over-hype, I thought. If I hadn't read such effusive reviews and if this hadn't won so many awards, I probably would have liked thi...moreThis was a case of over-hype, I thought. If I hadn't read such effusive reviews and if this hadn't won so many awards, I probably would have liked this book better. Unfortunately, Willis' style was a bit grating, and I found the plot itself to be overly kaleidoscopic and the book overly long. I suppose some were dazzled by her working in so much literary and Victorian trivia, but some of it just seemed gratuitous. There seems to be too much repetition. Too bad it wasn't pared down into something a bit more sprightly. The Jerome K. Jerome book that provides the title would provide a sterling example of not overdoing it. (less)
Back before this book was released in the States, a bibliophile friend on the West Coast recommended it to me. I dutifully pre-ordered a copy from Ama...moreBack before this book was released in the States, a bibliophile friend on the West Coast recommended it to me. I dutifully pre-ordered a copy from Amazon, which arrived just after the U.S. edition was released in the States. I read it, enjoyed it, and thought no more about it for a while.
Fast forward a couple of years. My son's fourth-grade teacher mentioned that she was looking for a good book to read out loud the class. I offered up my copy of Harry Potter, saying that I thought they'd enjoy it. When I dropped by my son's school a few weeks later, however, she ruefully handed it back to me. "This just doesn't seem to be holding their interest," she said.
Not long after that, as the Harry Potter phenomenon took off here in the States, I noticed that first edition, first printing copies of Harry Potter were going for outrageous sums at Ebay. Apparently the publishers hadn't expected the book to do well across the pond and a very limited printing had been done initially. Curious, I pulled my recently returned copy from the shelf. Lo and behold I had a first edition, first printing. I promptly auctioned it off on eBay, thinking that surely people would soon regain their senses, so I'd better act fast. (They didn't, as it so happens.) We used the money to go on vacation that Christmas. Oh, and I also ordered a new (non collectible) edition of Harry Potter.
Happily, my book had been returned to me from the fourth grade classroom unscathed and in near perfect condition; otherwise, I probably wouldn't have gotten much for it. Thus luck would have it that the fourth graders rejected the very book that they'd all be clamoring for the following year.
Huxley writes lyrically and perceptively about growing up in British East Africa. What I like most about this book is that it captures the wonder and...moreHuxley writes lyrically and perceptively about growing up in British East Africa. What I like most about this book is that it captures the wonder and curiosity of a young child quite convincingly. Huxley does a marvelous job bringing the Kikuyu and Masai people to life, and she does an equally impressive job portraying the wildlife and natural environment. This is a book filled with wonder. It's a very sensory book -- one can almost see, hear, smell, and taste Africa.
Another aspect of the book that is especially well done is the depiction of diverse cultural viewpoints -- for the most part, the locals don't understand the British and vice versa. Huxley does a good job of making it clear the origins of these misunderstandings, and she does it evenhandedly, with affection for all the cultures, including a clear-eyed appraisal of how odd British concepts of land ownership must have seemed to, say, the Masai. (less)
For anyone who loves deliciously sardonic doggerel. Especially recommended for Gilbert & Sullivan listeners, Edward Gorey appreciators, and folk o...moreFor anyone who loves deliciously sardonic doggerel. Especially recommended for Gilbert & Sullivan listeners, Edward Gorey appreciators, and folk of that ilk. I definitely qualify as I once made a salt-dough set of Christmas tree ornaments shaped into figures of famous opera deaths: Scarpia impaled on his dagger, Tosca taking the high jump, Gilda in her sack, Radames hitting his last high C (and using up that last bit of oxygen in the tomb)... you get the picture.
If you love dark humor, these rhymes will set you giggling. They're wonderfully misanthropic -- it's hard to imagine that many of them are from the turn of the last century, a time most of us associate with a certain saccharine quality.
My favorite in the book is probably, "L'Enfant Glacé"
"When Baby's cries grew hard to bear I popped him in the Frigidaire. I never would have done so if I'd known that he'd be frozen stiff. My wife said: 'George, I'm so unhappé! Our darling's now completely frappé!'"
Devotees of the Victorian era will relish these reflections on a wide-range of topics, everything from pincushions to prime ministers. Benson is a mas...moreDevotees of the Victorian era will relish these reflections on a wide-range of topics, everything from pincushions to prime ministers. Benson is a master a portraying the intricacies of social strata, and here he ranges from Queen Victoria to members of his own odd family. There are plenty of "public" (i.e. private) school reminiscences as well as a chapter on "Three Great Ladies and Others," which vividly recounts the days of the great hostesses. Another chapter on "Two Scandals," recounts an instance of card cheating in very elevated circles and the Oscar Wilde trial. No single thread holds it all together, but Benson is such a graceful stylist that it goes down well. The book as a whole reads like a gently humorous paean to Victorian times. (less)