Monday, October 31, 2011

What I read in October

by Susan

The Revisionists. Thomas Mullen [on the Kindle]

It seems I am surrounded by text in this city. Even without my seeking it out, it haunts me, hovers in the background, is invisibly sent from one handheld to another. I am a mere punctuation mark--we all are--in stories someone else is writing. Or has already written.

Caleb Williams. William Godwin (for the Classics Circuit) [on the Kindle]

The pride of philosophy has taught us to treat man as an individual. He is no such thing. He holds necessarily, indispensably, to his species. He is like those twin-births, that have two heads indeed, and four hands; but if you attempt to detach them from each other, they are inevitably subjected to miserable and lingering destruction.

Nightwoods. Charles Frazier

At some point, Stubblefield wondered how much he was really learning about Luce. She would talk freely about dress patterns, the daily details of gardening, his grandfather. But Stubblefield kept feeling like he was watching a cardsharp shuffle the deck, all the fine subtle movements to misdirect your attention, and at the end, a reassuring spread of hands to hide the pit opening under her life.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Helen Simonson (for book club) [on the Kindle]

"I did give [Kipling] up for many decades," she said. "He seemed such a part of those who refuse to reconsider what the Empire meant. But as I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy. It's so hard to maintain that rigor of youth, isn't it?"

Pillars of Gold. Alice Thomas Ellis

Only a few years before, Camille had been acutely concerned about her mother's appearance, sometimes refusing to be seen with her in public, but now it seemed that she no longer minded: she had expropriated from Scarlet's wardrobe those few articles that she felt would suit herself and had thereafter left her mother to her own devices. It gave Scarlet the impression that she had grown very old and from now on might just as well go round in her shroud.

Home Life. Alice Thomas Ellis

One of the things I like about the country is that the problems it presents are different. For instance while the drain in London sometimes get blocked up it is never because there is a hedgehog in it.

Zone One. Colson Whitehead

 If the beings they destroyed were their own creations, and not the degraded remnants of the people described on the things' driver's licenses, so be it. We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Island of Dr. Moreau: It was the wantonness that stirred me

 I've repeated a review only a time or two in the seven years I've been blogging. But I'm dusting off this one from August 2006 (it was a Slaves of Golconda group read) because 1.) I've been reading H.G. Wells this fall; and 2.) I wanted to participate in the Dueling Monsters challenge.

Also, I don't normally respond as viscerally to a book as I did to The Island of Dr. Moreau. As far as I'm concerned, The Time Machine and Invisible Man can't hold a candle to it, and as far as Dr. Moreau himself goes, he's the biggest monster of them all.


When I was pregnant with my son I developed preeclampsia. The doctors determined that they'd have to take him out two months early if either of us were to make it.

He spent his first month in a neonatal intensive care unit across town before being transferred to the hospital closest to us until he'd gained enough weight to leave hospitals altogether. A NICU is, of course, a miraculous place of care and compassion, but it is also a place where much pain is experienced.

S. fought against a respirator that insisted on forcing breath in and out at a rate to which his body didn't want to conform; with his face contorting in silent screams, he was continually pricked and poked for blood samples, then transfused with fresh blood when he couldn't make enough to keep up with the amount taken (the scars on his wrists and ankles from the blood-taking did not fade away for more than a decade afterwards). Repeat.

Wired, tubed, and for several days blindered, he suffered. The painful procedures continued until eventually we--doctors, nurses, parents-- could tell that he was not only going to survive, but thrive.

Not all the babies did. There were those of two or three years of age, still in no shape to live outside NICU, abandoned by their parents, depending upon volunteers and scraps of time from the nursing staff for a bit of human contact. And there were several who lasted mere hours or days before they died.

A nurse caught me finger-stroking S.'s tiny arm on one of my first trips to the NICU. Did I not realize how much pain I was causing him? she snapped. Because he had no fat stores, the lightest touch was an assault to the nerve endings just underneath his skin. She taught me to cup my hand around him and to keep it still.

A couple weeks later I saw a new mother stroking her baby the way that I had. I waited for a nurse to correct her, but no one said a word. I knew then that her baby was going to die. No one was going to deny her the bit of comfort she could gain from touching him, even if her touch caused him distress, because these moments with the baby were going to be all that she had.

As you've maybe gathered by such an introduction, I responded to The Island of Dr. Moreau on a very personal level. If a person, if an animal, is to suffer by someone's hands in a House of Pain, it had better be for a damned good reason.

Moreau, well regarded in scientific circles in London prior to the publication of a pamphlet that exposed his cruel methods of vivisection, left England for a private island in the Pacific where he could continue his experiments outside the strictures of society. By cutting and mutilating and grafting he molds an assortment of animals into a tribe of Beast People, teaching them rudimentary language and a form of religious law designed to keep them under his control even after he has turned them out for retaining undesired animal characteristics. Imperfection really bums the man out.

Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say: this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.

Moreau isn't driven to mold animals into human shapes out a desire to help either man or creature, but merely because he wants "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape." Ethics are not of interest to him: "The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature," he claims. Pain is immaterial; it is animalistic; intellectual desire transforms others into problems to be solved, nothing more or less.

Doctor Moreau is, in short, as psychopathic as they come despite the god-like appearance and demeanor that Wells has given him.

Edward Prendick, our narrator, is no match for him. Because Prendick, a shipwrecked gentleman taking shelter on Moreau's private island, has dabbled in natural history and studied biology under the famed T.H. Huxley, Moreau eventually reveals the truth about his experiments to someone he assumes can appreciate them and will henceforth stop hindering his work due to silly behavior. Instead Prendick is horrified, but offers weak and minimal objection. He reminds me of a journalist who lands an exclusive interview and then is afraid to ask any follow-up questions to the canned nonsense he's given. Time and again I wished the narrator were someone like Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin, someone who both understood the science and was willing to argue the ethics of a situation, to insist that being human means behaving humanely toward those not on your level. Someone who could at least read the Greek and Latin classics shelved near his hammock instead of revealing yet another skill he's lacking.

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the hands. But now that seemed to be the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object I could have sympathized at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even had his motive been hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves, the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another, the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In these days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear of Moreau. I fell indeed into the morbid state, deep and enduring, alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

I'd like to read more H.G. Wells and I intend to return to this one again as well, possibly in a few weeks with S. My response to it next time may not be quite as visceral. Perhaps I'll see Prendick in a more appreciative light; he does makes an excellent narrator even though his passive nature infuriated me on my first reading.

They lay, opened and half read, all over her house

'It rubs off,' said Constance. 'All those models carried on the same way the artists did. You only have to read a book about the Left Bank.'

'I don't read as much as you,' said Scarlet.

'You should go down the High Street,' said Constance. 'You'd be amazed what you can pick up on the remainder counter for a song.'

'We've got no room for any more books,' said Scarlet. 'The shelves are full.'

'They say you can tell all about a person from looking at his books,' said Constance, who had become addicted to book-collecting since she had acquired a car-load of second-hand volumes from a fair in the Midlands. She had originally intended to resell them but found she had grown attached to them and had built shelves in her sitting-room. They lay, opened and half read, all over her house.

'I don't know what they'd make of ours,' said Scarlet. 'Brian only buys novels by those men, and I haven't bought a book for years--not since Elizabeth David, I don't think.'

'I can't read books by men,' said Constance. 'They will go on about their willies and chopping blondes to bits, and who cares?'

'I think they think we do,' said Scarlet.

'I don't think they do,' said Constance. 'I think they just can't really think about anything else.'

--Alice Thomas Ellis, Pillars of Gold

Friday, October 28, 2011

Caleb Williams

by Susan

When the Classics Circuit announced its Gothic Lit Tour I thought I would need to take a pass on it. My sensibilities are more attuned with the Southern school of Gothic, Flannery and Faulkner, writers much too late for inclusion. Then my eyes snagged on Caleb Williams down at the bottom of the suggested titles list and I knew I'd be participating after all.

Caleb Williams had numbered among my tbrs since back in the winter, when I read what Rebecca West had to say about it:

"Once every five years or so I re-read two novels, which seem equally remarkable achievements. One is Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Everybody's heard of that. The other is Caleb Williams, by William Godwin, the philosophic radical whose political writings made a dent in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Nobody's heard of that. Yet I find it a great book, a serious, eloquent, important book with a great subject: it deals with authority, the authority of parents, guardians, teachers, God the Father, and asks the question can God the Father be forgiven for the existence of pain, can anything be made of the superior-inferior relationship. And it finds a perfect myth, a perfect plot for this discussion. Why is it not a recognised classic?"
How could I not want to read a forgotten classic, a novel that the formidable Rebecca West could not manage to suck dry on her first go-through?

Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, published in 1794, on the heels of William Godwin's Political Justice from the previous year, is often regarded as its companion piece, a way of popularizing its political philosophy for those who had not read his treatise, a way of pointing out the defects in the English social system, in its justice system. Many see it as the first detective novel, the first thriller, or as one of the first novels to address abnormal psychology. Is Caleb an unreliable narrator? Could he be gay? Is there a connection between Godwin's novel and that of Frankenstein, his daughter Mary Shelley's better-known novel? Should the novel be placed squarely in with the Romantics or the Gothics or allowed to straddle both?

Lowly-born Caleb Williams, largely self-educated and orphaned at 18, is quickly taken on as secretary and librarian by country squire Ferdinando Falkland following his father's funeral. It is a wonderful position for Caleb, a young man of insatiable curiosity who loves books.  All in the household and the surrounding area regard Falkland as a man of great benevolence and integrity. Caleb soon learns that Falkland can also be peevish and tyrannical, but believes these negatives proceed "rather from the torment of his mind than an unfeeling disposition."

One day Falkland accuses the unwitting Caleb of spying upon him, of wanting to ruin him. He says he'll trample him into atoms; later in the day he presses money into Caleb's hand by way of apology. Mr. Collins, the steward, tells Caleb a lengthy story that fills out the rest of volume I, one with elements that remind me a great deal of Trollope's The American Senator; a story that explains why the once outgoing and chivalrous Falkland has turned paranoid and gloomy: ultimately, he was publicly and physically insulted by, then suspected of murdering, another aristocrat in the community. It is this story with its parallels to Caleb and Falkland's future relationship, and, indeed, even the similarity of names between those in Collins' story and those who find their way into Caleb's own, that call into question the reliability of Caleb's narrative.

Falkland is cleared of suspicion when the aristocrat's former tenants, Hawkins and his son, are found with evidence connecting them to the murder; they are subsequently hanged. Caleb, however, becomes convinced that a man with Hawkins' principles would never stoop to murder. He begins to delight in mentally tormenting his benefactor, who he suspects framed the Hawkinses, until Falkland calls him on it. Caleb then declares himself "a foolish, wicked, despicable wretch." He begs to be punished, to be turned out of service, then declares his loyalty to, his lasting love for Falkland. Falkland keeps him on, although his own moods darken.

One day, while Falkland is off on one of his "melancholy rambles," a chimney fire blazes out of control and Caleb supervises the removal of household goods to the lawn. Caleb goes a bit nuts. With his mind, as he says, "raised to its utmost pitch," he seizes the opportunity to break into a trunk in Falkland's private apartment off the library, a trunk Caleb's long thought contains documents that will prove Falkland guilty of the suspected crimes.

Naturally, Falkland comes in and catches him in the "monstrous" act. "One short minute had effected a reverse in my situation, the suddenness of which the history of man, perhaps is unable to surpass."  Falkland points a loaded pistol at Caleb's head, then throws it out the window to keep himself from firing. The situation leads Falkland to extract an oath of silence from Caleb, then confirm all his suspicions: he's guilty as sin just as Caleb's thought. He says Caleb's to remain in his service, but will from this point never receive his affection.

The second half of the novel concerns itself with Caleb's efforts to leave Falkland's household and the extent Falkland will go to persecute him. Caleb will find that while the reputation of a man of Falkland's standing in the community is defense enough against a murder charge, Caleb's own reputation can be destroyed easily by his social better. Falkland frames him as a thief and he is thrown into jail to await a nonspeedy trial. Eventually Falkland will provide Caleb with the means to break from jail, but he will be unable to escape from Falkland's ability to track and the lengths he will go to to undermine all efforts to make a new life for himself. Things will become quite Kafkaesque for awhile. Caleb will be the first (and the last!) to tell you how no one has suffered as much as he.

Godwin wrote two endings to Things As They Are, and both are often included in current editions of the novel. In the original, Caleb gets his day in court, but he's seen only as a man out for revenge; he's imprisioned again and appears to go mad. In the version Godwin chose to publish, there is more emotional resolution, with Falkland admitting his guilt and much mutual forgiveness of wrongs committed. 

While I can see that there's enough meat on the bones of this story to bring one back for subsequent re-reads, I cannot say that I intend to return to it. Caleb feels so sorry for himself that I felt no need to do so myself. There was something so hinky in his desire to undercover his kindly employer's guilt out of nothing more than sheer curiosity instead of an actual sense that justice should be served that I often wanted to just slap him. Plus, there's the fact that I vastly preferred Collins' story within Caleb's story to Caleb's own. I'm firmly in the realism camp and there are tons more Trollope and Gissing novels for me to get to. And there's Vanity Fair. Yes, Rebecca, I've heard of that. But I still haven't read it.

Read another review of Caleb Williams at Aesop to Oz.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Surviving it all, a sort of bloggiversary post

by Susan

I told myself I would resume blogging once the kitchen remodel was complete. I expected that to be in July, then August, okay then, September.

The floor was installed, not the day after Labor Day, as planned, but that week. The cabinets came in in stages; the cabinetmaker and I got along once we left the general contractor out of the picture, who had issues with returning phone calls to either of us.

I wasted a lot of vacation days being stood up by people who couldn't be bothered to tell me they weren't coming in that day even though it had been previously confirmed that they were indeed going to do just that.

I painted walls. I painted the ceiling, now stripped of its protective but icky popcorn, in both the kitchen and family room countless times with a roller before resorting to brush painting it twice which it seemed to mollify it into looking considerably less splotchy. My hand ached a lot.

Eventually, the last week in September, the granite went in, followed quickly by the sink and the gas cooktop and the electric/convection oven with a computer for its brain.

The oven intimidated me and I was planning on having L. read the manual and then tell me how it worked before I attempted anything when the guys decided to make cookies late at night.

And it seemed to me that maybe they ought to have read the manual when after 30 minutes the oven had managed to heat itself only to 190 degrees. I resorted to reading the manual myself, figured out how to put it on speed-preheat, and about ten minutes later the temperature reached 210 degrees and something inside the oven's brain exploded from all that excess heat. The resulting smoke was efficiently exhausted outside thanks to the new chimney hood.

Me, behind the plastic used to protect
the walls from falling ceiling popcorn.

The oven flashed an 800 number at us and told us to call it, so we did, and that resulted in four visits, I believe, over three weeks from a two-man crew from a small appliance shop who would tell us different things were wrong each time they came out with a different motherboard or fan until they ran out of new parts to order that were under warranty. We then did what we would have done in the first place if we hadn't been following the oven's directives and called Lowes, from whom we'd bought it. The guy who came out did a diagnostic, came back five days later--this Tuesday actually-- with the necessary part, and while no one except the Lowes guy expected this to make a difference, expecially me,  prone to frequent fatalist rants these days, the oven works beautifully now. I've made three loaves of pumpkin bread and two of sourdough and I'm feeling the need to swear off carbohydrates for awhile.

L. started a new job in August and he had to redo a lot of the plumbing done by the so-called professionals so it took him until yesterday to finish putting the hardware on the cabinets and drawers. He wore me down on the placement for the cabinets pulls so that they're two cm higher than I wanted them, but I wouldn't budge from the middle on the drawers, even though he wanted the pulls placed on the edge.

Still a lot to be done, mostly by us, but we're still waiting on the delivery of the glass shelves for the china cabinet (cabinetmaker's still too pissed at the general contractor to bother bringing them by) and I'm playing phone tag with the kitchen designer about when the backsplash is to be installed.

I love the new kitchen, I will post pictures as soon as the shelves and backsplash are in, but even if I didn't love it, I would NEVER go through another remodel. I'm too old for all the upheaval involved.

Monday the blog turned seven. I intended to post in honor of such an occasion, but we went out to dinner since it was also my birthday and then I had to sit around in a stupor afterwards until it wasn't too early to go to bed.

Next year I'll bake the blog a cake. I've got an oven now; I can do it. Y'all will all be invited to have a piece.

Thanks for being readers and my internet friends.

Tomorrow I'm actually posting a book review.

I know, I know. I don't quite believe it either.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen

by Wendy

Fans of Stephanie Plum’s escapades will not be disappointed by Janet Evanovich’s latest installment, Smokin’ Seventeen. Chapter one begins with a phone call from Grandma Mazur, who recounts a bizarre dream to Stephanie; moves to the Tasty Pastry Bakery, where Grandma Bella puts the eye on Stephanie; and ends at the site of the former bonds office with Joe Morelli, Vinnie, Connie, Mooner, and Stephanie stand, staring at parts of murder victim number one. As the novel unfolds, the reader is taken over familiar terrain: Yes, there are zany characters, such as 72-year-old FTA, Ziggy Glitch, who thinks he’s a vampire; yes, Grandma Mazur gets kicked out of a viewing; yes, Lula goes on yet another whacky diet; yes, Stephanie’s car blows up; and yes, Stephanie’s love life with cop boyfriend, Joe Morelli, is complicated by enigmatic hottie, Ranger.

If you’re new to the series or haven’t been keeping up, you can still plunge in because narrator Plum briefs us on key bios and background. And, whether you’re new to the series or not, if you haven’t listened to any of the audio/CD/digital recordings, waste no time in checking one out from your local library. Be sure and select those narrated by C.J. Critt. Her characterizations, especially of Lula, are spot-on and have made me laugh out loud. Speaking of laughter, I’ve watched the movie trailer for One for the Money, the first book in the series, and it wasn’t funny. Where are those New Jersey accents? Why wasn’t someone like Cloris Leachman cast as Grandma Mazur? And if only Sandra Bullock weren't a little too old to be playing Stephanie . . . but I digress. Anyway, you can check out the trailer on

So, the bottom line is if you’re looking for standard Stephanie Plum fare, read or listen to Smokin’ Seventeen. If you’re like my sister, who’s tired of the franchise and the romantic tug-of-war, skip this one and wait to hear what the grapevine has to say about the next one. As for me, yes, it’s predictable and light, but the pleasure of reading a comic novel, especially one that is set in Trenton, NJ (across the river from Yardley, PA, where I lived for ten years and which does get a shout-out in one of the books) and sharing a Hungarian heritage with the protagonist is worth a few hours of my time.

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...