I declined to finish Montezuma’s Castle and Other Weird Stories because it is, simply, racist and essentializing crap. Even for 1899, when it was publ...moreI declined to finish Montezuma’s Castle and Other Weird Stories because it is, simply, racist and essentializing crap. Even for 1899, when it was published. For a set of “weird” or horror tales, the reader does not even get the catharsis of seeing the thieving and/or murderous villains get their just deserts. I believe this is because Cory does not understand that his villains are villains, but believes they are heroes. One potent example will suffice.
In the completely despicable and blessedly short story “The Voodoo Idol”, the protagonist, an American named Jones, languishes from a regrettably non-lethal gunshot wound in a hotel room in Haiti, a group of “natives” having tried to kill him. Jones explains to the American consul, who we understand is assisting Jones to escape Haiti intact, how he came to be in this terrifying position.
He stole some shit that wasn’t his. From people he describes this way:
“[A]s savage and bloodthirsty as any Central African tribe. Most of the inhabitants [of Haiti] are descendants of negroes brought from the Gold Coast many years ago. They have reverted to their original wild state, keeping up many of the ancient customs. Mixing as they have with the Indians of the interior, the present race is even worse than their ancestors. From Toussant l'Overture in 1804, when he first ruled, to Hyppolite Florvil and Salomon, the island has been the scene of continuous insurrection, intrigue, and murder.”
This retrograde group of people, nevertheless had created an idol that captivated Jones when he saw it. And he felt perfectly justified in stealing it simply because he wanted it.
There’s a moment toward the end of the story when Jones awakens to find a “native” assassin peering at him from an open patio door. The man has a knife in his hands and, for a split second I believed perhaps Jones was going to get some sort of comeuppance for his thievery and bitter racism. But instead Jones kills the man and escapes to America the Beautiful. The End.
Part of me wishes to enumerate all that is culturally and historically inaccurate about this story, to pick apart the foul illogic upon which Cory’s racism rests. A more significant part of me does not want to dignify it with reasoned criticism. I am, for once, glad that my taste in musty old writing is obscure. Hopefully this wretched book will continue to fade into obscurity. (less)
Published in 1869, Monsieur Lecoq predates A Study in Scarlet by 18 years and is acknowledged as an influence on Arthur Conan Doyle specifically, but...morePublished in 1869, Monsieur Lecoq predates A Study in Scarlet by 18 years and is acknowledged as an influence on Arthur Conan Doyle specifically, but also on the development of detective fiction in general. This entertaining novel has two parts. The first begins with a crime and follows the Parisian detective, Monsieur Lecoq, as he tries to unravel its intricacies. The second begins decades earlier, tracing the somewhat melodramatic affairs of some country folks and landed aristocracy whose turmoils eventually lead to the crime committed at the beginning of the first book. In other words, the entire novel in two parts ends where it begins. Although I enjoyed the first part with its focus on crime detection immensely more than the second melodramatic part, taken as a whole it has a very satisfying narrative construction. Gaboriau had a distinct flair for character and plot construction. I would happily read another Monsieur Lecoq adventure.(less)
I wanted to love The Warden having read that it is among Trollope's best. I don't know if this is a reasonable usage of the word, but for me it create...moreI wanted to love The Warden having read that it is among Trollope's best. I don't know if this is a reasonable usage of the word, but for me it created a kind of chronological dissonance. Encountering something that was created in a different time period for an audience not oneself and based upon worldviews, attitudes or opinions people no longer hold, can be challenging. Whether it's film or literature, social norms will seem outdated, sexism or racism - for example - will often be casual and assumed. There can be a lot to wade through to get to the story.
Perhaps it is my interest in history that has given me a relatively large amount of patience for this kind of dissonance. If it does not bear directly on a plot point I am supposed to buy, I can generally look at it a little clinically, distantly or sociologically; evaluating it for what it tells me about the period in question. I watch modern advertising in much the same fashion, feeling much the same disgust for it as I do some of these old attitudes and values. But it's easy to keep my distance.
My limited experience with Trollope had led me to put him in a small but important personal category of Victorian-era authors who seem to have their eye on the values of the next century: Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Henry James, Charles Dickens. Essentially, this category contains Victorian authors who themselves were critical of the Victorian status quo and who often propounded attitudes that seem more modern, are more relatable from this distance of over a century. Perhaps Trollope still belongs in this category, but a certain obnoxious classism emerged in The Warden that took me by surprise.
George Orwell felt similarly - and I should have heeded his warning when making my book choice. He observed of Trollope in The Warden: "A time-honoured abuse, he held, is frequently less bad than its remedy. He builds Archdeacon Grantley up into a thoroughly odious character, and is well aware of his odiousness, but he still prefers him to John Bold, and the book contains a scarcely veiled attack on Charles Dickens, whose reforming zeal he found it hard to sympathise with."
John Bold, who Trollope does indeed seem to disdain a bit, is a reformer who champions the rights of poor dependents in the face of possible exploitation or economic abuse by the wealthy Anglican church. Like all Trollope characters, Bold is complicated and certainly not painted as a villain, but I believe Trollope meant his readers to find Bold foolish and misguided. Apparently for Trollope, as for his truly foul character Archdeacon Grantley, the church (and by extension old wealth) has a right to whatever money it can fleece without being held to account...because the powerful are inherently good and this is the way it's gone for centuries. And, while we're at it, the poor can do without even the resources they are owed, because they're poor and don't feel privation so sorely. You know, they're used to it.
If something resembling this attitude were not, just this moment, enjoying a hateful renaissance in the country in which I live, it might have annoyed me a little less. (less)
Punctuated by a couple moments of high drama, this is a quiet and simple story about a man reconnecting with humanity after years of self-imposed isol...morePunctuated by a couple moments of high drama, this is a quiet and simple story about a man reconnecting with humanity after years of self-imposed isolation. Perhaps it's because I'm also knee deep in the plot-driven and atrociously-written A Game of Thrones, but the development and trueness of Eliot's characters struck me as finely tuned as well as refreshing. I also have an abiding interest for 19th-century British fiction which, specifically or tangentially, handles the ramifications of the industrial revolution on average people, especially rural and small town people. Thomas Hardy has always been one of my go-to guys for that topic, but my increasing familiarity with George Eliot has convinced me this was also a theme important in her work and thought. This is a lovely little book. Be forewarned if you are in that camp of folks who count it a dirty word, but it is also sentimental.(less)
Published in 1947, Greener Than You Think is still an engaging, funny read. The protagonist and narrator, Albert Weiner, is one of science fiction's m...morePublished in 1947, Greener Than You Think is still an engaging, funny read. The protagonist and narrator, Albert Weiner, is one of science fiction's most delightful and dastardly villains, and he is all the more so because he seems genuinely blind to his own villainy. The scenario - scientifically-altered bermuda grass run amok - is comical, but as the plot develops apocalyptically, it is also weird and disturbing. This book provides a bunch of laughs and some commentary on modern American priorities and attitudes that are peculiarly still timely. (less)
I really wanted to love this book. I toured the Old Manse in Concord, MA this past summer and began learning more about Massachusetts' transcendentali...moreI really wanted to love this book. I toured the Old Manse in Concord, MA this past summer and began learning more about Massachusetts' transcendentalists and friends, finding their philosophies and biographies intriguing. I also was aware of Hawthorne's reputation as a literary "relative" of Edgar Allen Poe. But with the exception of his fantastic and more essay-like entries ("The Old Manse" and "Fire Worship"), few of Hawthorne's tales rise above heavy-handed allegory. The ones that do (famously "Young Goodman Brown" and "Rappaccini's Daughter") still share with the allegories a condescending chauvinism and rigid religiosity that is no less annoying for being unsurprising. In a time period where one might expect to find chauvinism and religiosity, it does not always come across so abrasively as it does in Hawthorne's most obnoxious stories, for my money "The Celestial Rail-road" and "The New Adam and Eve". (less)
To reiterate the feelings of most readers of this adventure novel, Long John Silver is one of the great characters of western literature. In writing h...moreTo reiterate the feelings of most readers of this adventure novel, Long John Silver is one of the great characters of western literature. In writing him, Stevenson created what would become the paradigm of "pirate" but, more interestingly, he also introduced a morally ambiguous, charming, ruthless opportunist on par with Iago in terms of all time great villains. This novel was great fun to read, from beginning to end.(less)
War and Peace has been considered a classic in world literature for 150 years and it famously transcended genres in an inventive and widely influentia...moreWar and Peace has been considered a classic in world literature for 150 years and it famously transcended genres in an inventive and widely influential manner. It has been read, adored and/or loathed by millions. Unsurprisingly, I won’t be adding anything original to the body of extant criticism about this novel, but I nevertheless feel like recording some of my thoughts and personal responses as a reader. I suppose that in itself is some indication of the emotional and intellectual potency this book still carries.
A lot of commentary, contemporary and in the intervening years since its 1869 publication, focuses on the form of the work, trying to define what in fact this giant book is: a novel or history or some third (or fourth) thing. Tolstoy himself was unwilling to pin it down, which I think should possibly serve as an object lesson to us all. It is both and neither at once. It contains fictional characters experiencing historic events and historic people uttering fictional sentences. The work has a narrative arc, a cast of thousands, subplots and pacing that are novelistic (even cinematic) in character. But it also contains minutely detailed reconstructions of battles from the Napoleonic Wars, meditations on military strategy and the nature of violence, and philosophical treatises on the nature of historical inquiry, historical knowledge, and man’s place within history.
For my taste and personal Bildung as a reader and history nerd, Tolstoy’s thoughts on historical philosophy were most enjoyable and startling. Though he peppers the whole book with his philosophical, indeed historiographical observances, it is in the second Epilogue that he really lays everything out. I believe I am exaggerating only mildly when I assert that in this Epilogue he prefigures most of the main strains, fluctuations and epistemological problems presented by historiographical thought in the last 150 years. That is, in one tidy set of chapters crowning this already unbelievably ambitious and detailed work, Tolstoy foresaw the basic ebb and flow of western theories of history for the next century and a half.
He did not use historiographical jargon, but in his musings one can trace criticisms of structuralism, of the “Great Man” theory, of materialism, of Eurocentrism, of theories of power, and various kinds of determinism. Tolstoy asked himself the same giant questions historians (and many, many thinkers) ask themselves. What or who is the driver of history?
It seems to me that War and Peace in its entirety is Tolstoy’s best answer to that question. He (along with an army of social historians who would not gain widespread prominence for almost 50 years) rejects the idea that “Great Men” power historical change. His constant panning between domestic scenes and war scenes, between fictionalized action and historically-rendered action, between the micro and the macro of human events, demonstrates clearly his utter rejection of any ultimate importance of the actions of leaders, geniuses or any other Great Men. In fact, he explicitly states that of all people those who appear to exercise the most control over major events, those ostensibly at the center of history, are often the most bound, almost fated, to make the decisions they do and end up exercising much less willful control over any single situation.
However, Tolstoy also rejects the idea that the masses determine history. He considers the form of the power “the people” possess, and whether they do or do not give it, more or less willingly, to leaders who do or do not exercise it according to their will. Through his interrogation of this idea, we see what a whimsical idea it is to even discuss “the people” as one whole, let alone to imagine we can discern their will in a uniformly meaningful way or how it affects (or does not affect) those in power. Likewise, and through similarly reasoned arguments derived from logical consideration of written history, Tolstoy discounts God as the prime mover of historical causality. Moreover, in a way that presages Derrida’s deconstructionism, Tolstoy quite dismantles many historians’ common assumptions about power and historical change by using their own concepts and logic to question their arguments. In most cases, he seems to be unearthing mere tautologies and circles of thought.
Like any really dexterous mind, ultimately he arrives at the unsatisfying but invariably true conclusion that there is no single answer. History is driven by the constant, fluid, traceable but unpredictable interaction of the people with their leaders, of the micro and macro, of accident and purposefulness. History encompasses all things and, like War and Peace, is not any one thing…except compelling. (less)
I am tempted to describe Cranford as a "local color" novella for its quiet but consistent delineation of people and place. Plot is a secondary concern...moreI am tempted to describe Cranford as a "local color" novella for its quiet but consistent delineation of people and place. Plot is a secondary concern to character and setting here. As such, the novella has an extremely low key sensibility about it, which I appreciate when done well. Gaskell does it well. An additional perk is that the fictional Cranford (ostensibly based on the real Knutsford, which Gaskell knew well) is primarily populated by women, a quirk explained early on in the narrative. This allows a mid-19th-century female author to, unusually, pay attention to women's interactions with each other that do not in every case revolve around men. Interestingly, most of these female characters are middle aged or even elderly and so - even more unusual for a 19th-century female-authored work - romance and marriage-seeking are not the primary concerns of the story. (I'm looking at you, Jane Austen.) Cranford has a very warm heart beating at its center. Ultimately it seems to me to be about women taking care of each other; about the exigencies, ups and downs, costs and rewards, of female friendship; about forging bonds of familial closeness where no blood ties exist. It has certainly encouraged me to search out more of Gaskell's work.(less)
I think of Anthony Trollope like Thomas Hardy, but with a sense of humor. He definitely belongs to that category of Victorian writer who was wildly cr...moreI think of Anthony Trollope like Thomas Hardy, but with a sense of humor. He definitely belongs to that category of Victorian writer who was wildly critical of class and gender hypocrisy of the period. Trollope tended to set all of his novels in the same fictional England; protagonists in one novel resurface as bit players in another novel. The plots weave in and out of each other. Taken as a whole, his fiction is amazingly intricate. And even taken one-by-one, they deserve a lot of artistic attention...if the social issues they speak about have little relevance to us now.
Trollope drew really three-dimensional characters and, something very rare for a male writer of his time period, this includes his female characters. None of Trollope's characters are straight heroes or villains; they all by turns make decisions against their better judgment, feel regret, paint or sorrow, consciously act against dominant social mores, forgive each other or do not, occasionally do brave or large-hearted things, tell the truth and lie - they behave just as real people do and are, consequently, likable and irritating, depending on the decisions they have just made in the novel. They are a fine remedy for stereotypes.
The Duke's Children is an interesting portrait of a man who does not know how to demonstrate his considerable love for his children. Like most men of the period, especially wealthy ones, he kept his children at arm's length out of some sense of propriety, of what is best for them and of what is appropriate for himself to be engaged in, i.e., this is a period when men were not supposed to be overly concerned with "domestic" matters, a purview under which their own children would fall until adulthood. The novel opens with the death of the duke's wife. His three children are adults or nearly so, but they are practical strangers to him just as they are entering into ages when they will make decisions to affect the rest of their lives, like career choices and marriage partners. Moreover, they have come of age in a time period when class and gender expectations of behavior were beginning to change. So this novel really tells the story of an older man coming to terms with the changing world around him via the decisions of his children, of which he tends to disapprove. It's not fascinating, but it is entertaining and has a lot of heart. While Trollope here has not given you any characters as memorable as Augustus Melmotte from his The Way We Live Now, he has offered a number of very likable ones and it is still a pleasure to read about them.(less)
The age of this book and the fact that a white woman collected these stories combine to periodically subject the reader to some pretty bald racism. Th...moreThe age of this book and the fact that a white woman collected these stories combine to periodically subject the reader to some pretty bald racism. That aside, this book offers aboriginal folktales that rate with the world's more frequently told myths and folklore, like the Grimm's Tales of western Europe and the panoply and Native American creation stories - like these other bodies of lore, they can be funny, disturbing, moralizing and weirdly amoral; they feature people who become animals, animals who become people and anthropomorphized animals. For any lover of folktales, I would unreservedly recommend this book. (less)