bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
Another museum weekend; another batch of books procured from museum gift shops. I have a problem, maybe.
After visiting several historical sights in Lexington this Saturday, Mom and I popped over to Concord to check out Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived for twenty years. In addition to being shamed from beyond the grave for my own lack of creative output, the time at Orchard House reminded me that, while I've read most of Alcott's books for children, the only bit of her adult writing that I've read is A Long Fatal Love Chase, about a woman who marries the devil. (It's an excellent book.) So I picked up a copy of Hospital Sketches, which she'd written during her short and ill-fated time serving as a nurse in the Civil War, and I read it that afternoon. (It's very short.)
The first thing I really liked about my copy of Hospital Sketches is that it seems to be a facsimile edition of a very early printing, with the blocky old-fashioned text of a printing press and some slightly batty spacing and punctuation. These things amuse me much more than they probably ought.
The second thing I really liked about the book is that, thought it is mostly autobiographical and written in the first person, Alcott gives the viewpoint character's name as "Tribulation Periwinkle," which about the most perfect parody old-school New England name you can come up with. She is variously referred to by other characters as "Old Trib," "Nurse Trib," "Nurse P.," and other charming variants on the charming pseudonym.
Alcott's skill with observational humor, and especially her comic accounts of the absurdities and small frustrations of getting anything done properly in this mad old world, means that Hospital Sketches is a very comic little book in tone, although the subject matter is mostly about young people dying of horrible wounds as Nurse Trib overworks herself right into a bout of typhoid pneumonia. The first sketch details her travels down to DC from Massachusetts, and it contains all the things you want in a comic travelogue, such as amusingly mean descriptions of her fellow-travelers, some morbid fantasizing about all the ways traveling on public transit can go horribly wrong, and at least one adventure in getting embarrassingly lost. This last article takes place when she's trying to figure out how to get her free ticket to get from Boston to DC and involves her running around all over downtown Boston, which I personally enjoyed reading about as a resident of that badly planned and opaquely regulated little city.
The rest of the sketches are about her time at a facility she calls Hurly-burly House or the Hurly-burly Hotel, a chaotic, badly managed place where it seems like a miracle anyone actually got better at, especially with medicine being what it was in the 1860s. There's a lot of religious and patriotic beatification of various soldiers who die dreadfully, which could easily have been corny, especially considering the tone of arch social satire in so much of the rest of the book, but which do come off as quite touching, probably because Alcott's very earnest about what a tragic waste of human life it is to send a bunch of young people off to get blown up, no matter how glorious or necessary the cause.
The cause for the Union army in the case of the Civil War was certainly about as necessary as it gets, being rivaled in moral high ground only by the fight against the Nazis in World War II; however, the 1860s were still the 1860s, and it shows. The Alcott family were diehard abolitionists, and not in the "people ought to be as nice to their slaves as they are to their pets" way (honestly, some anti-slavery literature is mindboggling regressive). But all the terms for people of color that were the polite terms back in 1860 are not the polite terms anymore (the impolite terms are still impolite, only even more so), and the bits where Trib Models Interacting With Black People Nicely For The Benefit Of Readers are well-intentioned but really quite cringey from the vantage point of 150 years later. Fortunately, these bits are short, since the book is short and so all the bits are short.
The last sketch (except for a postscript) is an account of Nurse Periwinkle coming down with typhoid pneumonia; this bit is really the opposite of dated, and will ring true to the experience of anyone who has fallen deliriously sick, especially anyone who has fallen deliriously sick in the middle of a work shift. This last sketch also provides a more detailed account of the nurses' quarters, which makes living in a freshman dorm sound clean and orderly.
All in all, it's as delightful a look into the hell of Civil War-era medical care as you're going to find, and it's about as readable as contemporary accounts of the subject are going to be, so I definitely recommend it to anyone else who's interested in Alcott, even if you're mostly familiar with her as a children's writer.
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
There come times in the life of every reader where a book contains enough Things Relevant To One’s Interests that it makes them go “Oh, it’s like this author has written this book just for me!” When you have as many things Relevant To One’s Interests as I do, this happens with some regularity, I will admit.

But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.

But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.

This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.

I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.

I was not disappointed.

The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)

The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.

The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.

If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.

With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).

I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.

The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.

I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The last book that I kept on the Kindle app on my phone took me over three years to finish. Because of this, I decided the next book I kept on my phone would be shorter, so I settled on Catherynne M. Valente's novella Six-Gun Snow White.

Six-Gun Snow White did not take me nearly as long to get through, although this was less because it was shorter and more because I kept going back to read it more often. I read it in all the usual places I read on my phone--doctors' offices and on the T and at the pharmacist--but I also read it in bars and in casinos, and occasionally even at home surrounded by my fifteen hundred other books. It was that good.

Obviously from the title, it's a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. This one takes place in the Wild West, and Snow White is the half-Crow daughter of a robber baron who runs a mining corporation and a Crow woman that he basically bought and threatened into marrying him. Snow White's mother doesn't last long in captivity, and so the girl is raised by a series of well-intentioned house staff for several years and basically allowed to run wild as long as she doesn't demand her father's attention and nobody really important sees her. She learns to shoot and her father gives her a gun with ruby pearls on it, which she names Rose Red. Everything seems fine enough as far as the girl is concerned until Mr. H remarries. It is the new wife, a scion of a respectable Boston family who had some sort of scandal back East, who nicknames the girl Snow White as a racist taunt to go with the terrifying beauty regimen she imposes.

The new Mrs. H., of course, has a mirror, and this, also of course, is where stuff gets weird. This mirror doesn't talk, but it does seem to have a whole backwards alternate reality version of Mrs. H.'s life in it.

This deviation from the basic plot of Snow White isn't the most important or original thing about the novella. Valente's strengths here lie in her lyrical prose and her dreamlike world building and characterization. After establishing Snow White's character, first in isolation and then as the victim of Mrs. H., what feels like the plot of the novel really kicks off after Snow White runs away and she has to deal with all sorts of other people—we see her navigate the world of the workers in the mines, we see her best the huntsman (or in this case, "the dude," which meant something different back then than it does now), and we see her establish herself among a homestead of outlaw women, neatly obliterating the usual dynamic of being taken in by some cute wacky others because they're so nice and replacing it with a story of grim solidarity.

There is no Prince Charming in this story. Or rather, there is, but that's just the name of Snow White's horse. There is a creature called Deer Boy, who might have had a rougher time of it than Snow White even at the hands of Mrs. H.

Though the piece is relatively short, it is, like most of Valente's work, incredibly dense, and I don't mean that in a difficult-to-read law text way, I mean it as a lot of layers of meaning and connections between things that you'll miss if you don't read carefully and explores a lot of issues of class and race and gender and America and belonging and abuse and all that stuff all at once, and also it's fun to just roll around in the lovely gritty sentences and general gunslinginess. Sometimes. This book is a lot less lighthearted than The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland or even most of Speak Easy; it is extremely violent, with fairly explicit depictions of domestic, industrial, and sexual abuse. The language, even with all its metaphors and its occasional joke, doesn't obscure or romanticize any of this; it heightens it. I've seen a couple people asking if this is a children's/YA book or if it's appropriate for second graders and ahaha nope. High tolerance for the sheer unrelenting awfulness of human history is definitely a prerequisite here. For me, this is one of things I like about this as a fairy tale retelling; fairy tales had a long tradition of being gory and violent and full of torture and stuff before they got bowdlerized and Disneyfied in the twentieth century. Other people's mileage, obviously, may vary.

As for me, I enjoy violent terrible history things, and I really, really enjoy Valente's multilayered writing, even if it's way smarter than me and makes me feel like I don't have anything sufficiently intelligent to say about it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aight, buckle in, because this is going to be a long one.

I read James McManus' Positively Fifth Street a while ago and I liked it, so I picked up his more recent nonfiction book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. This one is basically just what it says on the tin, a nonfiction history of poker, with no memoir/personal essay bits. It was published in 2009, two years before Black Friday although after the passage of the UIGEA. This was also the year before I graduated college, and, though I managed to completely miss the poker boom while it was going on, it also really brought me back to that era, and not in a good way.

It's a very good book about the history of poker. But it has several flaws that all boil down to basically one major flaw that I have a lot of FEELINGS about, and that is: It hits every single shitty ubiquitous journalistic trope of that era, especially all the ones that drove me away from ever taking a single journalism course.

My specialization within my English major was something called "discourse studies," which consisted of additional genre studies (beyond the regular English requirement), some linguistics, some communications theory, some general media studies/media literacy stuff, and a bunch of creative writing courses. I took four creative writing courses because you needed to take four creative-writing-or-journalism courses, and my goal was to learn to write. Journalism, I figured, was clearly where you went to learn how to not write, at least if literally anything I was seeing in published newspapers or magazines was any indication.

In fact, the Death of Journalism was something I was (and am) enormously and morbidly fascinated by, the abysmal state of science journalism doubly so. The issues with the economics of news media and the collapse of advertising revenue were certainly fascinating, because I'm always interested in follow-the-money type stuff, but I'm also interested in the specific questionable themes and storylines we see over and over again in supposedly nonfiction works. The more I dug around finding criticisms of the bite-size, easily palatable oversimplifications and shallow framing I was seeing so frequently, the more I thought that the mainstream media functioned at least as much as a form of cultural mythmaking as it did a source of information -- it did the same work as fairy tales and Bible stories do for children and religious people, but for the adult, secular chattering classes. (I still think this, only more so.)

While some of this is slowly getting better and much of it is not, my college years were the absolute height of the neuro-nonsense/neuro-babble craze, which finally started seeing some well-deserved backlash around 2013 or so, although Slate puts the seeds of the backlash as far back as 2008. Suspiciously neat'n'tidy evolutionary narratives are, unfortunately, still going strong, although they're less omnipresent than they used to be (I have not had a dude try to hit on me using one in several years, at least, thank Jesus), and some of the recurring myths are starting to see some more pushback when they do crop up than they used to (exhibit A being the "women talk 3x as much as men" stat, thoroughly debunked several years ago at LanguageLog). I think this has less to do with the lazy allure of "we're just like that, nothing to be done lalala" wearing off or people becoming more informed than it does with the implications of the world economy imploding and society fraying at the seams -- much of the mainstream media's sciencey pep rallying has gone the full self-help route, promising that your brain and body has infinite power to change and adapt to anything at all so there can never be any sorts of real problems on the outside, like in society or with the economy or anything, it's ALL YOU, you have the POWER to CHANGE and just WILL yourself out of any sort of human limits or reactions to things by DOING YOGA AND EATING MORE KALE, etc. etc. The endless adaptability narrative (individual adaptability, of course) is what better enables cultural inertia right now, and so is getting more page space.

But around 2009? Dubious evo-psych wasn't just being used for its always-in-demand purpose of excusing men's shitty behavior. It was being used for literally fucking everything about every goddamn topic imaginable. There was shitty evo-psych about why people voted Republican or Democrat. There was shitty evo-psych about shopping malls. There was shitty evo-psych about intelligence and binge drinking. There was even some shitty evo-psych about introversion and extroversion, as played out by some highly specific type of goldfish or something, in Susan Caine's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.

And, apparently, unbeknownst to me at the time, there was shitty evo-psych about poker. And about some other things that McManus somehow managed to co-opt into being about poker.

Unfortunately, the worst stuff is front-loaded right at the beginning, which is why it took me so long to get into this damn book. He's determined to tell the whole story, not only all the way through chronologically right from the beginning, but all the way through chronologically from several millennia before the beginning. Playing cards don't get invented until Chapter 3.

Chapter 1 is mostly American mythmaking, with some anecdotes about various Presidents mashed up with some very sciencey-sounding stuff about the traits of immigrants being passed along in Americans' DNA, as if it were an either scientific or historical fact that Americans are all descended from voluntary immigrants and that's why we're so ~special~. While the erasure of the Native American population is pretty par for the course in most treatments of American history, it's slightly more surprising in publications about American gambling; in addition, the country's substantial black population came here almost entirely unvoluntarily; in further addition, quite a lot of the white people who came over when we were still colonies were shipped over as prisoners. McManus cites a figure of 2% (doesn't cite it from any study that I can find) for emigrating populations; this surprised me, since McManus is Irish and the Irish have, rather famously, been forced to emigrate in numbers up to ten times that -- and even in those cases, emigration was often "assisted." This whole section seems to come from a single book that's supposedly largely a cultural analysis, but which I will apparently now have to go read and dig into the sources used in order to figure out if it manages to square any of these circles.

A good fisking of Chapter 2 could provide the basis for a semester-long course on everything wrong with modern journalism. In my review of Positively Fifth Street, I said parenthetically that "Regrettably, this leads him down the tiresome evo psych path more than once, but as far as evo psych explanations for stuff go it could be a lot worse." Well, this book is the lot worse that it could be. I will spare you the full deconstruction, especially since I'd want to irrefutably source everything, and I didn't hold on to as many of the social science textbooks I worked on at Pearson as I should have. But suffice to say that this chapter contains a lot of stuff about the behaviors of prehistoric man (just man) that bears very little resemblance to anything I read in any of the anthropology, archaeology, psychology, history, biology, communications, or child development textbooks I edited at Pearson, or any of the scientific journal articles and studies I had to pore through when research-assistanting a university-level psych class on "Evolution, Culture, and the Mind." Behaviors of prehistoric women in this chapter were limited to a claim suggesting that women wore makeup and jewelry while men didn't -- findings straight out of the Flintstones Academy of Prehistoric Anthropology. I laughed so hard I dropped the book, and I didn't pick it up again for two weeks. I also recommend skipping this chapter if you're not in the mood to hear about how the entirety of human existence depends solely on unchecked male aggression, rather than it being a major threat to everyone's existence when not carefully controlled and mitigated by actual fucking prosocial behavior. (I think I got to this part on the same day that story broke about a dude stabbing a lady on the train in Chicago for turning him down, so I had approximately negative patience for "men are aggressive to attract the ladies" type bullshit. Maybe it's badass that you can kick the shit out of a woolly mammoth or whatever, but only if I'm ENTIRELY CERTAIN THAT YOU WILL ONLY EVER KICK THE SHIT OUT OF THE MAMMOTH AND NOT ME.) Like... for fuck's sake, dude. Poker requires aggression in betting, sure, but behaviorally it requires sitting at a table with a bunch of fellow humans for several hours. And the sooner poker players realize this and make acting like it as much of a requirement for being considered "good at" poker as knowing how to size their raises properly, the sooner they can stop whining about how hard it is to attract new players to sit at tables with them for several hours.

The book starts to get better once we move into actual history and there's actual on-topic material to address, such as the invention of playing cards and the development of early gambling games. This stuff is much more interesting, although the previous two chapters have certainly done quite a bit to damage McManus' credibility for anything where he doesn't show all his work. Many of the times and places discussed are areas of history where I have much less of grounding in than I do in problems with mainstream science journalism and the methodological weaknesses of self-serving evolutionary narratives, so I'm not armed with much in the way of how to determine if it's right or wrong.

The actual poker stuff -- which, to be fair, is like 80% of the book, and certainly the most important 80% -- I tended to find credible. McManus's approach to poker history/mythology is basically the opposite of his approach to all the tangential subjects he tries to tie it to: When it comes to old poker anecdotes, biographical information of legendary gamblers, famous poker hands of history, etc., he goes out of his way to demythologize it, often interviewing multiple subjects or visiting multiple primary sources, carefully examining the trustworthiness of each of them and putting them in context of the journalistic standards and reliability at the tame, making sure the audience knows when and where something could have been exaggerated for effect and what factors make it how likely that a given account is total bollocks or not -- you know, proper history study stuff. It's exhaustively researched and sourced. Names, dates, prizes, buy-in amounts -- all the poker data is there and accounted for. He clearly loves the subject of poker and wants to do as right by it as humanly possible, even if it means up giving up believing in some really fun tall tales. We're given some very detailed looks into the minutiae of what seems like every bracelet event ever played at the World Series. Careful attention is given to not forgetting the respected, talented players who came in second, third, and otherwise not-first in major events, who tend to be forgotten about in the usual poker lore of big winners. The demythologizing of actual, nuts-and-bolts poker history is so thorough and careful that it occasionally borders on dry.

I'll still take it over the re-mythologizing of everything else in order to create neat and simple buttresses for the central thesis of the book, which is that poker explains basically everything about American and world history and humanity and life itself. (There's even an additional cringeworthy chapter specifically about poker and sex, buried deep in the final third of the book, just when I'd managed to forget about all the shitty evo psych from earlier.) Poker is indeed incredibly multifaceted, so it's really weirdly easy to tie it to quite a large number of things, and as I've started studying it more I've also found myself conceptualizing of more and more regular, everyday stuff in poker terms. (I'll be interested to see if any of the things I learn from playing poker will noticeably affect my behavior or thinking in other areas of life -- if it'll improve my short-term memory, my long-atrophied mental math skills, my comfort with making decisions quickly, my assertiveness, all that stuff the strategy books say are transferable skills.) But because poker genuinely is so tie-in-with-able for so many things, it's somehow just extra annoying when someone seems to be overdoing it. And while it's a hallmark of nearly every nonfiction book published in the 21st century to dedicate at least the concluding chapter to expanding the reach of the subject until it encompasses the entirety of the human experiment (I'm looking at you, The Ghost Map), this book actually lacks a Theory of Everything last chapter, because the Theory of Everything bit is visited and revisited so many times throughout the text. In a unique twist, the book actually ends on a fairly limited, concrete call to action to do something about the UIGEA because it's terrible, and the observation that poker is very popular and will probably keep existing.

Anyway, 80% of this review has been about the 20% of the book I had a problem with, so here are some really fun things from the 80% of the book I liked:
--A long and colorful accounting of all the popular ways of CHEATING AT CARDS ON STEAMBOATS which is just as delightful as it sounds
--Many many presidential anecdotes for many many presidents
--A history of poker strategy literature, starting all the way back at the "how to cheat" primers with grossly long names that were popular long before the ones about non-cheating strategy
--Dr. Jerome Cardplayer
--A meticulous accounting of some absurdly rich dude's quest to bust a crew of the best limit Hold'em players in the world through sheer variance by basically hammering them with his bankroll
--Entirely too much stuff about the WSOP, considering he wrote a whole other book about it
--A decent amount of content about women poker players, although obviously not as much as I would have liked because there have not historically been as many women in poker as I would have liked, and there still aren't, but the ones who are there are totally badass and awesome
--Some funky stuff about AI and game theory, most of which involves interviewing actual scientists about actual scientific research!
--BATTLE STORIES about the Civil War, told using the word "bluff" a lot and therefore totally definitely actually about poker
--Adorable misspelled epigraphs culled from online poker forums/poker room chatboxes, complete with emojis and lots of all caps

All in all, this is a truly wonderful 300-page book, plus some crap that inflates it to a 425-page book. I would have gotten through the 300-page book in less than a week if that was all that was there to read. It's still a very valuable resource in my poker education, though, and it was indeed high time I read it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For my vacation reading while I was in Ireland, I wanted to stay with the Irish theme (since I was in Ireland) but perhaps deviate slightly from the history books (since I would be going to a million museums, and also I was running short on Irish history books), so I instead packed — among other volumes — the copy of Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You that I rescued from my aunt's Irish lit collection over the summer. It turned out to be a perfect choice for reading on the plane, and sometimes in the car while driving around the picturesque sheep pastures of Western Ireland, and at breakfast in cute little B&Bs while eating porridge with honey and cream, and (possibly best of all) in the lounge at the Hotel Aisling in Dublin on a sunny Good Friday afternoon while drinking tea. It's not an especially long book — by my standards at least, clocking in at 544 pages — but most of these reading sessions were fairly short, as we had a pretty busy vacation schedule.

My Dream of You is not the sort of book I tend to read too much of, in that it's a contemporary realism/litfic piece that's mostly about middle-aged people and sex, but if I'm going to read a depressing litfic book about middle-aged people and sex, I think this was a good pick for me in that it also has a lot of stuff about writing and history and travel and feminism (sort of) and being perpetually single, all of which actually are relevant to my everyday interests. And barring some unexpected tragedy, I will be middle-aged someday (I hope!).

Our narrator and protagonist is Kathleen de Burca, a 49-year-old Irishwoman living in London where she has a successful career as a travel writer for a small company that is part of a larger company. When she is not traveling to glamorous locations for work, she lives alone in a basement apartment in London. Kathleen has been single since she broke up with her J-school boyfriend almost thirty years ago, but has a dedicated habit of having unfulfilling sexual encounters with every boring-ass traveling businessman or married douchebag who makes a pass at her in the course of her travels. O'Faolain's writing is engaging enough that I actually felt sympathy for Kathleen's transparently useless quest to find human connection via hooking up with randos in suits, instead of doing what I'd normally do, which is stick my nose into the air and harrumph that a fully independent, nomadic lifestyle is CLEARLY WASTED ON SOME PEOPLE. Part of this is because Kathleen's character is well-developed enough to make it clear that this lifestyle isn't actually totally wasted on Kathleen; she actually very much values her independence, especially having been raised in the stagnation and conservatism of mid-century Ireland by an authoritarian father and a chronically depressed mother. The tension between her desire to love and be loved and her desire to stay way the hell far away from the trap that was Irish domestic life when she was growing up provides a lot of the internal conflict for the book.

When Kathleen's colleague and best friend dies unexpectedly, it precipitates a midlife crisis. For Kathleen, a midlife crisis looks like retiring early and returning to the Irish countryside to do research on an 1840s divorce case that she'd been interested in since J-school, known as "the Talbot affair," in which the young wife of an Anglo-Irish landlord was accused of adultery with a groom. While she is here, she has a brief affair with a married Irish man who also lives in England, named Shay (short for Seamus), and does a lot of musing over her life — both her unhappy childhood in Ireland and the various dramas she's gotten into in England and around the world — and visits what family she has remaining in Ireland (a brother, a sister-in-law, and a niece). But the most fun bits are her interactions with the people of Ballygall (the little town she's doing research in) and the historical stuff she finds and the general low-grade absurdity of her time in the country. The hotel she checks into, the Talbot Arms, is a family-owned affair, and Kathleen quickly befriends the little clan that runs it. They keep putting her up into other accommodations for the weekend due to hosting various larger events: in a little thatched cottage during a teacher's convention, and in a very modern lakeside house belonging to some guy named Felix for a wedding. Kathleen meets Nan Leech, the ferociously judgmental and ancient local librarian, and interviews a couple other elderly locals about what they remember being told about the Talbot affair by their own elders. She pokes around the library and the old grounds of the estate, and writes a draft of what appears to be a historical romance novella about the case, the chapters of which are included within the book as she writes them. (The novella, in my opinion, is pretty good.)

Some people might find the ending of the book not particularly satisfying, since it's a bit anticlimactic from what I think a traditional sort of ending would be, but I liked it. So much of the book is dedicated to Kathleen's mental rehashing of her terrible decision-making throughout her life, and I think she makes a non-terrible decision at the end, so I think it represents her growing up more (there is still growing up to do at fifty) and moving into the next phase of her life where hopefully she will continue to make better decisions.

There are a lot of things in this book that I feel like I ordinarily would complain about, but in this case I think all work for the O'Faolain is telling (see above re: Kathleen's terrible decision-making skills). However, there are two main complaints I actually have. One is that the printing that I have has a big chunk of pages missing and replaced with a duplicate of the next chunk of pages instead — so the book goes from pages 1 to 277, then page 300-something to 330-something, then page 300-something again to the end. Obviously this is not the author's fault, as I am entirely certain she did not write it this way. My other complaint is that the novel eschews the use of quotation marks (although, interestingly, Kathleen does not in the excerpts from her novella). I'm decently used to reading things without quotation marks — French writing conventions universally use the em-dash to introduce dialogue, and My Dream of You is hardly the only English novel to forgo traditional quotation marks — but I still think it's unnecessary and a bit pretentious.

I probably won't dip back into the world of depressing realistic fiction for another several months since I do have an extremely limited tolerance for reading about people who aren't enjoying their sex lives but keep goddamn having sex anyway (JUST GO DO SOMETHING ELSE WITH YOUR TIME, THE WORLD IS LARGE AND FULL OF INTERESTING THINGS), but if all Irish women's fiction comes with such a big dose of tragic history stuff — which I suspect it might — then when I do, that's probably where I'll go. Alternately, I might read O'Faolain's memoir, a copy of which I also stole from my auntie.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
When I was in high school I went through a period of studying pirates very intensely and buying a lot of shirts from PirateMod, back when they actually used to ship me the shirts I bought. (Long story, ask me about it sometime.) One of the best books I read during this period was David Cordingly's classic book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. It was an excellent resource and an excellent read, so you can imagine how excited I was to find out that Cordingly had also written a book called Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways and Sailors' Wives.

After actually reading it, I'm much more ambivalent. The book is short, but it covers a lot of ground, and sometimes it strays into territory that seemed kind of off-topic at the expense of giving us more details on the stuff that was on-topic. I didn't mind that the whole book wasn't entirely about female sailors; the discussions of the lives of women whose lives were shaped by the sea anyway were still pretty fascinating. The book opens with a  look into the lives of the dock prostitutes in the U.S. and Britain who served predominantly naval clientele, and there are other sections that focus on how sailors' marriages worked and on communities like Nantucket, where the women ran nearly everything on land because most of the adult male population was gone at any given time. Unfortunately, there were also some chapters that were just about male sailors who slept with a lot of ladies, which is not the same thing as being chapters about the ladies, especially considering the complete lack of the women's perspective given. I would have preferred a lot more detail about the female sailors, female pirates, and female lighthouse-keepers whom we do know about. This would require a wider focus than just the 18th and 19th century British and American maritime history that Cordingly specializes in, which I would have been totally fine with.

The result is that the most promising part of the book for me is the section in the afterword/acknowledgements where he explains how he came to the decisions in scope and focus that he made: The original plan of focusing exclusively on female sailors in a wider time frame would have resulted in too much overlap with another book called Female Tars by Suzanne Stark, about women in the Royal Navy. Looks like I'll have to go read that one next!

Scope creep issues aside, Cordingly is a solid writer and a reliable historian, and the material he's working with here is quite colorful. The book provides an interesting and easily digestible look at each of the many and varied topics it touches upon, and I'm happy to have read it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The most recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sale had a good selection of books for those such as myself who have, since Lin-Manuel Miranda's play took Broadway by storm this fall, devolved into complete Hamiltrash. When I saw the title of Paul Collins' Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take On America's First Sensational Murder Mystery, I knew I had to buy it. Well, first I thought it must be fiction that had been misshelved, but then I reread the subtitle and picked it up and read the flap copy just to be sure, and when I got back home I immediately went online to see if I was remembering the lyrics properly:

Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me
Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry?
This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation
The liberty behind


I intend to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt
With my assistant counsel—

Hamilton, sit down
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent. Call your first witness
That’s all you had to say!


Confirmed: This book is about the Levi Weeks case, a real case in which Burr and Hamilton really did serve as co-counsel for the defense.

The musical fudges the facts a bit for dramatic license. First of all, it barely touches on the case at all, subsuming it under the larger narrative of Hamilton's nonstoppitude, whereas this case was actually a really, really big deal. Second of all, it wasn't a big deal because it was the first murder trial since independence, since it really wasn't: It was the first murder trial that became a big public sensation along the lines of the popular murders that characterized the Victorian era across the pond (see; Judith Flanders' The Invention of Murder), which had sort of just barely started--because, thirdly, the Levi Weeks trial took place in 1800, when both Hamilton and Burr were well-established lawyers in Manhattan, and in their mid-forties.

Neither A. Ham nor A. Burr pop up too much in the earlier parts of the book, except in distant, tantalizing bits and pieces, like marching in Washington's funeral procession, and some little-regarded letters to the editors of various newspapers. Instead, the earlier sections of the book are dedicated to setting the scenes of life in three-turns-of-the-century-ago New York City in general, and in Elias Ring's boardinghouse in particular, where the major players in the crime all lived.

The short version: Elias Ring and his wife ran a nice, respectable Quaker boardinghouse, which at the time had four boarders: Mrs. Ring's sister Hope Sands; Hope's cousin Elma Sands; a cloth merchant named Richard Croucher; and a young carpenter named Levi Weeks. One day shortly before Christmas, Elma Sands got dressed up to go out, borrowed a muff from a neighbor, left the boardinghouse and didn't return. Around New Year's, her body was found in the Manhattan Well at Lispenard's Meadow, a well that had been recently built as part of Senator Aaron Burr's plan to improve the municipal water supply, but which had been abandoned because it kept filling up with quicksand.

Suspicion immediately fell upon Levi Weeks, who was rumored to have been engaged to Elma, and he was promptly arrested. His brother, Ezra Weeks, called upon some top-notch lawyers who owed him money to serve as Levi's defense team in exchange for canceling their debts. The lawyers in question were Senator Burr, Major General Alexander Hamilton, and future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Henry Brockholst Livingston.

The trial ran for two full days, which was super long by the standards of the time, and had only one recess for a few hours overnight, during which the jurors had to sleep on the floor in a portrait gallery because it hadn't really been planned that the trial would run on for that long. Part of the length of the trial was due to Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston's brilliantly tricksy cross-examinations--mostly Hamilton was in charge of the cross-examining; he seemed to be having fun with it--and part of it was due to the approach of Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader Colden, which was to bring in basically everybody in Manhattan as a witness. Unfortunately for Colden, his prosecution was a complete mess. In addition to such blunders as citing cases that actually argued the opposite of what he claimed they argued, Hamilton and friends kept tripping up his witnesses with questions like "What day was that?" when they claimed they saw or heard suspicious things. (Things you learn from reading history: Old-timey people are not NEARLY as smart as people assume they were when complaining about Kids These Days. Like, sure, General Hamilton was certainly much smarter than your average asshole is today, but your average asshole in 1799 had alcohol for breakfast and didn't know how old his own children were.)

A nice gift for the nerds of the future was that this trial, all nearly forty-eight hours of it, was taken down in shorthand by the clerk of the court and later published in full as a book for mass purchase. As a result, we know every one of Colden's blunders, the defense team's snarky questions, and the witnesses' testimonies. The middle third of Duel with the Devil therefore gives us a very lively and detailed account of exactly who said what and how it was received. It makes a delightful courtroom drama.

The final third of the book discusses how the various publications about the trial were produced and received, as well as what happened to all the major players--including a pretty convincing theory on who it was that actually murdered Elma Sands. My favorite bits were learning more about the sad and wacky trajectory of Aaron Burr's life after he shot Hamilton, of which I had known nearly nothing: It turns out that he was indicted for murder in both New Jersey and New York, although the charges were eventually dropped; he fled out West where he was then charged with treason for fomenting a rebellion in Mexico; eventually he ended up wandering about completely penniless in Europe for several years before he dared return to New York and become a specialist in family law, which happened pretty much just because the only people desperate enough to be willing to use his services as a lawyer were women seeking divorce cases. (Burr represented Maria Reynolds, of the Reynolds Affair/Pamphlet notoriety, in her divorce. Isn't history fun?)

Overall, the book is a really fascinating look into a very particular slice of history, and is nearly a novel in its readability: It's got a fantastic cast, vivid worldbuilding, a thrilling mystery, and even some dryly funny dialogue:

"There were many discolorations on the teguments of the skin," Dr. Snedeker announced to the prosecutor. "There was a dislocation of the clavicle from the sternum."
There was a confused silence.
"Be so good, sir, as to speak in less technical language, so that the jury may understand you."
"The left collar bone was broke," the doctor sighed.

Well, I laughed.

Anyway. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR: American history nerds, true crime nerds, my fellow Hamiltrash, combinations of the above.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I read Lyndsay Faye's The Fatal Flame in about a day, which is pretty much the exact same thing I did with both of the first two books in this series, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret.

The title of this one is a bit more literal than the first two--the book is about fire. Much of the series has already been about fire: Timothy Wilde's parents died in one; his larger-than-life older brother Valentine is a firefighter; and, of course, he got half his face burned off at the beginning of Book 1. As a predictable consequence, Timothy Wilde is terrified of fire.

So it's only fitting that the final mystery in the series would be an arson case.

At least one thread in the plot seems deceptively simple: When sleazy robber baron industrialist and hella corrupt Democratic Party alderman Robert Symmes reports the arson to Timothy and Valentine, he also hands them a convincing suspect pretty immediately: a women's labor rights activist whom he had fired after an unsuccessful strike. He also seems to have proof in the form of creepy threatening letters that Sally Woods, the activist in question (who lives in a greenhouse with a printing press and wears pants and is generally awesome) had sent him.

Obviously, it's not going to be that simple.

For starters, when Robert Symmes asks Valentine to investigate the arson, he pisses Valentine off so badly that Valentine decides to run against him for Alderman, which upsets nearly everybody because of a long-ass list of Tammany Hall-related Reasons. Like, Timothy isn't even the person who is the most pissed off about this--that would be Gentle Jim, Valentine's boyfriend. The circumstances under which Symmes pissed Valentine off are also ones that intersect with both Timothy's detective work and a lot of long-running personal and family issues for Valentine, who honestly seems to be in competition with Tim for which one of them can be the most messed up. (Or more likely, it is Tim that is in competition with Valentine.)

The resulting plotlines draw Tim--and us--deeper into the world of corrupt Tammany politics, and into the horrifically exploitative world of women's industrial labor in the mid-nineteenth century, including the prejudices endured by the white in-house factory girls, the abuses heaped upon the out-of-house freelance seamstresses (mostly immigrants), and the even more horrific abuses employed to divert immigrant/refugee women into the sex trade (this story takes place at the height of the Hunger, so: lots of very destitute Irish washing up in New York). There are good cops and bad cops and good corrupt politicians and bad corrupt politicians, and while I usually found it pretty easy to slate characters into Awesome Characters and Characters I Want To Punch Up The Bracket, in the actual situations on the ground Timothy doesn't always know who's a "good guy" and who's a "bad guy" (except Alderman Symmes, where the only question is just HOW reprehensible is he really) (answer: TOTALLY REPREHENSIBLE), and winds up in all sorts of awkward situations like "working with his nemesis Silkie Marsh" and, as previously mentioned, "trying to solve a crime on behalf of Alderman Symmes."

Some readers have apparently complained that there is not enough Valentine, probably because they want the book to be all Valentine all the time, which is understandable enough. Valentine Wilde is both the hero this version of New York City needs and that it deserves. Timothy is not very good at heroing, which is what makes him such an excellent actual protagonist. But Valentine is totally big on heroing, doing ALL THE DRUGS and banging ALL THE LADIES (AND SOME OF THE DUDES TOO) (MOSTLY JIM) and speechifying ALL THE RABBLE-ROUSING SPEECHES and dressing ridiculously and running into fires and slamming rapists' heads through walls and basically being a Big Damn Hero and also entertainingly batshit. His and Timothy's relationship continues to be a thing of beauty to read, meaning they fight even worse than me and my brother Timothy ever did--which is sayin' something, but I don't think Tim and I have ever devolved into a giant screaming match about how much we hate each other in front of extremely important political personages, at least not as adults. This Tim and Valentine will have giant I-hate-you screaming matches at any time in front of any person, about literally anything, from Valentine's sex life to why Timothy is short. All these topics eventually end up illuminating something about their extremely complicated relationship, because fiction is supposed to have less pointlessness in it than real life.

Anyway, if the book were all Valentine all the time, we also wouldn't get as much of everyone else--not Bird Daly, on her way to becoming a teenager; Elena Boehm, whose accent gets more pronounced every book for some reason I still haven't figured out; Dunla Duffy, an immigrant seamstress whose half-simple Gaelic poeticism makes getting information out of her a whole new mystery plotline in itself; Mercy Underhill, back in New York and with something unidentifiably wrong going on; Tim's squad of Irish roundsmen buddies, including the one who falls in love with a police-hating immigrant woman because she nearly shot him; Gentle Jim Playfair, with whom Tim begins building a real friendship independent of Valentine; pants-wearing activist Sally Woods; the fictionalized version of George Washington Matsell, first head of the NYPD; or spectacles-wearing wannabe-dandy newsboy Ninepin and his crew (but mostly Ninepin)--even the bad guys, like Grand Bitch Silkie Marsh and Alderman Robert "That Guy" Symmes, are worth every minute of their time on the page. Usually in a book this big there's something that I figure could have been edited down, even if I don't personally mind, but with Faye's stuff I need every single interaction between every single character that takes place. All I need is for someone to have an asshole cat and I might have actually died of awesome casting.

Despite all the screaming and arson and oppressed laborers (and an ACTUAL TARRING AND FEATHERING OMG), much of this book is still funny. Partly this is due to Timothy's entertaining internal narration -- he is very clever when he is not being dense as a brick--and a big chunk of it is due to his wacky pseudodetective sidekick, Mr. Jakob Piest, a Dutch policeman with a talent for "finding things." But the funniest part of the book is Timothy voting for the first time in his life, which doesn't sound all that exciting until you get up close and personal with just how absurdistly corrupt the Tammany Hall voting machine was at that time. And how terribly loud the "dandy" fashions of the era were. Apparently, an orange cravat and getting completely shitfaced were mandatory for voting in this time period.

As always, the flash patter remains one of my singularly favorite aspects of the book, but I really have to take a step back and admire how seamlessly this thieves' cant fits into the rest of the worldbuilding, with different characters' use of and reactions to it informing their already rich characterization. This New York is pretty hardcore awful, but it's not a one-dimensional pseudo-deep grimdark -- it's as rich and thrilling and satisfyingly devourable as a Guinness chocolate cake.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
A whole bunch of people told me that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would be right up my alley. They have been telling me this for a good couple of years now. I have finally gotten around to reading it and am pleased to report that my friends know me very well. Or perhaps I should be less pleased to report that I am apparently very, very predictable?

The Night Circus is a lush, vaguely steampunky-Gothic, dark-romantic Victorian fantasy. It is ostensibly about two young magicians forced into a bizarre competition of skill by their teachers—both entirely dislikeable characters in their own ways—in the arena of a mysterious, magical black-and-white circus. Mostly it is about the circus, really, and although obviously the challenge that started it is quite important and provides the plot, the circus becomes a lot more than that—which I think is the point. There are many people involved in the circus besides the two magicians and their insufferable teachers, and the circus is very, very important to them. There are, therefore, a lot of vignettes and subplots and backstories and whatnot. A lot of readers, even ones who like that it takes place in the Victorian era and is full of pretty Victorian things, may not be as OK with the structure and pacing of the novel, which also tends to resemble a lot of Victorian lit in that it begins quite at the beginning and rolls along slowly and descriptively like a big sluggish river of words until it washes gently up upon the plot. The regular parts of the story are interspersed with little second-person interludes simply exploring the circus, which will probably strike some readers as pretentious and bore them, but which I enjoyed as pure one-thousand percent escapism, probably because the Night Circus is the type of place that I would love to attend. (Its fans, the rêveurs, have a dress code that just so happens to be what I wear half the time anyway. Like, it is my kinda place.)

I think my biggest complaint is that some of the magical stuff was a bit vague—I don’t know if actually explaining the mechanics of it any more would have made it better (actually, I’m 99% sure it would have ruined the atmosphere) but sometimes it didn’t have enough emotional force to really keep it all together—there’s a number of mentions at the end of how much effort it is for Celia to keep the circus running but I think if that’s the case—and if it’s been a longstanding case—the Celia POV parts of the book needed a bigger infusion of sensation-novel-ness, a stronger sense of the weight and strain of maintaining control.

This book does, however, go firmly on my “I want a movie/miniseries” list, even though it is not particularly action-packed, because it is so hugely visual and I want to see all these illusions animated! I also want an excuse for a more social experience of it, like going to a midnight showing in full rêveur wear or having a premiere party with all black-and-white food. Please tell me I can get this! Marketing to Goths is like, so hot right now, right?
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I didn’t get much of anything done today, because I spent basically the whole day on the couch with a cup of coffee and Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, the sequel to her awesome historical mystery The Gods of Gotham.

Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-officer Timothy Wilde, younger brother of the larger-than-life Democratic machine member Valentine Wilde, as he deals with the psychological fallout of having half his face burned off in a fire and solves extremely sordid crimes. These crimes are not particularly “set against a backdrop” of mid-nineteenth-century New York as they are thoroughly woven within it. Where the first book’s plotlines grew out of the lurid, sordid contemporary social problems of child prostitution, body-stealing, and anti-Irish sentiment, the plots of Seven for a Secret grow directly out of the odious practice of Southern “fugitive slave catchers” kidnapping free blacks and selling them down South. (There was a certain Oscar-winning movie made about this two years ago, and excerpts from Solomon Northup’s memoir make up a good portion of the epigraphs in this book.) Chimney-sweeping, which was a thoroughly horrific industry, also makes several appearances. And we get to see a lot more of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, as Timothy’s investigations into the murder of one Lucy Adams—the secret colored wife of a prominent Democratic politician—bring him closer and closer into Party politics.

Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him.  While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.

Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.

On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.

Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In the few moments I have had over the past six weeks to read for pleasure, I have been (finally!) entertaining myself with Lee Jackson’s wonderfully disgusting work of weird history, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The subject of the book is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: the disgustingly dirty state of London through the nineteenth century and the attempts by various “sanitarians” and social reformers to find a way to clean it up.

This book has all the best thing one looks for in a book about Victorians (at least if one is me)—petty political dramas, bizarre personalities, lots of excerpts from primary sources with all the weird spelling and punctuation intact, some people dying horribly, overblown moralizing, old cartoons, racist garbage about the Irish that I can get insulted at, and old photographs of people with majestic moustaches. We get to meet such quintessentially Victorian personalities as Edwin Chadwick, who, in addition to being a prominent sanitarian and mid-level politician, had a name like “Edwin Chadwick.” I mean, seriously, Victorians.

The book is quite sensibly organized into categories of filth rather than straight chronological order, making it essentially a series of smaller, more tightly-focused history explorations, rather than one big sprawling narrative on London filth. Chapter subjects include garbage collection, human sewage, soot, slum housing, street mud, public toilets, and—my favorite, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me and my tastes in weird history reading—cemeteries and corpse disposal. Some personalities show up in multiple subjects, and later chapters are well fitted into the pictures painted by the previous ones, so it’s fairly easy to follow how it all comes together, even if you’re me and your ability to remember the different decades is more or less limited to “1840s—Irish Famine. 1860s—Sensation novels. 1890s—Oscar Wilde.”

Jackson is also a very entertaining narrator, in an understated, unobtrusively funny way that consists partly of his own commentary but in greater part of being able to find and juxtapose just the right examples of Victorian absurdity, hypocrisy, silliness, and just plain WTF-ery.

This book is also just super British, especially because Yale University Press doesn’t seem to have done an American copyedit and just printed the exact same book they have for sale in the U.K., logical punctuation and single quotation marks and British spellings and all. This is a choice I approve of one hundred thousand percent; I honestly think something would be lost if the style were Americanized at all. I do think that the most adorably British moment is right at the end of the “public convenience” chapter where Jackson gives a brief update on the modern state of the public toilet and warns that it is “under threat” and “falling prey to twenty-first century ‘austerity’.” This is because, as a youngish American, the closest thing to a “public” toilet I am familiar with is the one at the nearest Starbucks. British people and their quaint notions of public infrastructure! They’ll be talking about “public health insurance” next oh wait.

Honestly, this book was right up my alley—I’d recommend it to anyone not too easily grossed out as a really interesting history book, but for me, this was straight-up comfort reading: it was exactly what I expected it to be, it hit every “genre trope” I like of books in this “genre” (if “Victorian weird nonfiction” is a genre), I learned a lot of the sort of stuff I like learning. Does this make me a huge nerd? Probably. I’m probably also a big nerd who will be checking out Jackson’s other work pretty soon.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The elevator pitch for Elizabeth Bear’s new novel Karen Memory is colorful enough that you can pretty much be certain that if you like the elevator pitch, you will like the book, and if you don’t, you won’t. The elevator pitch is: Heroic prostitutes versus disaster capitalists in the steampunk Old West.

I was pretty much sold at that point, and I am happy report that Karen Memory is just what you’d want from a pitch like that, with added awesomeness besides. This includes a fictional appearance by real-life historical badass U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and his giant mustache.

I’ll be frank: I have enjoyed a fair number of stories that are absolute trashy messes, because they are trashy mess hodgepodges of stuff I like, and I probably would have still liked Karen Memory well enough if it were that. All the same, that is not the case here: This is a really solid story. It’s got strong and unashamed dime-novel elements, but it all ties together into a coherent, well-paced, thrilling narrative that is chock-full of awesome things and they all make total sense.

It’s a first-person narrative that does well the main thing a first-person narrative has to do well, which is: the voice is fabulous. Karen’s been taught “proper” grammar as part of her genteel parlor-girling duties, but the narration is in her regular nineteenth-century Old West working-class reads-a-lot-of-dime-store-novels voice, and it’s great—it’s fun and colorful and folksy and smart, and Karen’s a great one for sly observations and over-the-top similes and you can generally tell she’s got her roots in a good old playful Irish storytelling tradition. She says “could of” and “knowed” and she’s not one whit the less smart for it. She’s also totally adorable in her developing feelings for Priya, an Indian girl who’s managed to escape the cribhouses of the story’s villain, abusive pimp Peter Bantle.

Priya’s also great—a budding mad scientist with phenomenal language-learning skills who wears pants and is even more awkward about feelings than Karen. In fact, the cast of characters surrounding Karen is almost exclusively made of thoroughly awesome people, except the people who are such utter terrible people that you viscerally want to punch them in the face with their own fists, which does still make them great character. The cast at Madame Damnable’s consists of a diverse crowd of women (and one dude—the house bouncer, a gay Black man named Crispin), including the inestimable Miss Francina, a transwoman who nobody is an asshole to about it (except Peter Bantle, of course), the human embodiment of solidarity and friendship, and all-around stellar character. The other girls come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and accents, and they each have their own characters, though we rarely learn their backstories. The rest of Rapid City seems to be populated with men ranging from the villainous to the sort of ineffectually decent enough, at least until Marshal Bass Reeves and his posseman, a Comanche dude named Tomoatooah, arrive. They kick ass, quietly and with great dignity and sometimes dynamite. The dynamite is less quiet, obviously.

On to the steampunky bits! The steampunky bits are a bit less goofy than much of the steampunk I’ve read so far, although I admit to only reading ridiculous steampunk. There are no flying whales. There is, however, a lot of really bizarre city infrastructure and some weirdo robot full-body sewing machines that sound more like Iron Man suits than anything else. Much of the plot hinges on a creepy technological advance that’s so far still secret but not implausible based on what tech they’ve already got, and a bit more plot hinges on a particularly souped-up submarine with tentacles, because what’s a steampunk story without at least one octopus-thing? At any rate, I’m wicked jealous of Karen’s sewing machine.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone who likes badass ladies, steampunk, stories about lesbians that aren’t tragic death coming-out novels, historical figures you haven’t learned of in school, seeing abusive assholes get what they deserve, the Old West, big diverse ensemble casts, luxuriant mustaches, characters exhibiting genre-savviness (the genre in question being dime novels), and fun.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh is the fourth and, currently, last volume in R.L. LaFevers’ series about Theodosia Throckmorton, the eleven-year-old daughter of two British Egyptologists, who is able to sense magic and remove curses from ancient artifacts. In this installment, Theodosia travels to Egypt with her mother—an archaeologist who is nevertheless completely unaware of all things magical—to return a sacred artifact to the ancient order of the Eyes of Horus. As usual, she is pursued by the evil Serpents of Chaos, who are the actually dangerous order of occultists that tend to pursue her (the other one, the goofy Black Sun, were disposed of in the last book). Guarded, in part, by her contacts with the Brotherhood—another secret order, this one dedicated to guarding the lost knowledge of the library of Alexandria—Theodosia has to manage her time carefully in order to return the emerald tablet without her mother finding out, which unfortunately means a lot of playing too sick to go to the digs.

As much as I liked this book, putting Theodosia and all her special Egypt powers back into the milieu of Egypt occasionally got a little awkward as the book danced along trying to keep Theodosia sufficiently protagonist-y without splatting too hard into a white savior storyline. The results are mixed, what with Theodosia's role in the various plots and orders being very very special, but also a lot of pretty well-developed secondary Egyptian characters and a sympathetic look at the Egyptian nationalist movement.

While there is a lot of Gadji, I still think there is not enough Gadji in this book. I'd read a book entirely about Gadji.

I think this book is emotionally strongest (and least squidgy) when dealing with Theodosia's feelings of alienation towards her family and her secrecy-strained relationship with her mother, especially when more of her family history is uncovered.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Miss Theodosia Throckmorton is the sort of MG heroine I would have been completely obsessed with had R. L. LaFevers' delightful series been around when I was about ten or eleven. As it is, I'm unashamed to eat this series up with a spoon. I'd read the first two a couple years ago when I temporarily stole them from Asshole Ex's younger sister, and more recently, a friend of mine who works for HMH--after also getting me hooked on LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy--procured me copies of books 3 and 4.
I read Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus all in one day, which was yesterday, when I was suffering a stomach bug that required a billion hours of napping to get over, otherwise it wouldn't have taken the entire day. Despite my having forgotten quite a lot of what happened in the first two books, it was still a fun read, and most of it got explained again enough that I wasn't lost for long.
The basic concept of this series is that Theodosia Throckmorton, the daughter of two Egyptologists who work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, can sense magic--specifically, curses of the sort that hang around on the ancient artifacts that tend to wind up in antiquities museums. She's also a fair hand at removing them, although occasionally something gets out of hand and we get a book.
In this third installment, Theodosia and her little brother Henry discover an emerald tablet, and it appears that everyone is after it. "Everyone," in this case, includes the Serpents of Chaos, a thoroughly evil secret society; the Black Suns, a mostly just completely batty but also somewhat evil secret society; and Awi Bubu, an Egyptian mesmerist who may be more than he seems. The only people who aren't after the emerald tablet, in fact, is the Chosen Keepers, which is unfortunate for Theodosia as she supposedly works for/with them and they keep blowing her off.
As one would expect, basically all the grownups in the series are oblivious numbskulls, even the nice ones, such as Theodosia's kindly but very career-focused parents. All the same, they are entertaining secondary characters, and some of them are even sympathetic, such as the socially inept Stilton. The younger kids are much more fun, though, especially Theodosia's street urchin friend Sticky Will and all his weirdly-named brothers.
This series strikes an odd middle ground of not overly romanticizing the Victorian era but not really dealing with any of its social issues in much depth either--it's just sort of dropped in there that, for example, Sticky Will's mother is still alive but is barely making ends meet as a laundress and will have to keep laundressing until she drops dead of exhaustion. Upon reflection, I think this is probably appropriate for middle grade, so that the book remains a fun adventure and doesn't turn into an issues book, but the children who read it still shouldn't grow up to be intolerably stupid adults who think the Victorian era was all manners and spiffy hats.
On to book four, while I wait for the second His Fair Assassin book to clear at the library.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
While recovering from the NaNoWriMo madness, I checked out the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series, Without a Summer. This book takes place during the actual historical event of the Year Without a Summer, 1816, a period of global cold weather following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

In this version of history, however, there’s magic, and so many of the less scientifically literate members of the population blame the cold on a different source: the coldmongers, a subset of glamourists with a talent for manipulating temperature rather than the usual light and sound. Coldmongering is dangerous, meaning that manipulating anything as big as the weather would be pretty fatal pretty quickly—and even regular coldmongering is dangerous enough that most coldmongers are very young, dead before thirty. Being nice people, Jane and Vincent, our protagonists—a pair of professional and highly-sought-after glamourists—get themselves involved when they rescue Chill Will, a young coldmonger who is attacked by an angry, ill-informed mob on the street.

Jane and Vincent have their own problems in addition to the civil unrest—they have gone to London to do a glamural for an Irish Catholic couple, which Jane has provincial bigoted Protestant feelings about that she has to get over (in an appropriately awkward, shame-inducing way), and Jane has brought her pretty younger sister Melody with her, since there is a dearth of eligible young men in the country after the war with Napoleon had gotten a lot of them killed. Being in London has also brought them into contact with Vincent’s family, who are as odious a lot of backstabbing, sniping, catty aristocrats as you could wish for. The central aristocat of this family is Vincent’s father, the Earl of Verbury, who is manipulative, cruel, smug, classist, racist, probably every other –ist too, power-grubbing, and never happy with anything, on principle (he LITERALLY explains that it is one of his principles to never be happy with anything, I am not kidding you)—in short, he’s the kind of asshole who takes it for granted that he’s the boss of everyone and everything, and thinks chilling the fuck out for half a second or enjoying your damn dinner are signs of weak character. He’s a huge missing stair and he should have been shunned by all humans long before we get to this story, even if he is an Earl.

Anyway, Jane and Vincent’s family issues get all tied up in the civil unrest when Melody seems to be falling for Catholic young Mr. O’Brien, who is involved in helping the coldmongers, who are planning a march on Parliament demanding a relief bill and to not be blamed for the weather, said march being probably instigated by the Earl of Verbury in order to oust the current Lord Chancellor or some callous bullshit like that. Jane has to overcome her own prejudices and misconceptions in order to navigate a thick web of lies, conspiracies, and bogus treason charges to save herself, Vincent, and the man who might become her brother-in-law—if he isn’t hanged.

I’m really liking the continued worldbuilding in this series, and the cast of characters and slate of social issues that country-bred Jane confronts in London are awesome (Jane doesn’t always appreciate how awesome they are at first, and has to learn). While the first book was sort of a domestic romance in the style of Jane Austen and the second book was more action-y, this book is mostly a plotting-and-intrigue book, with a lot of spying and telling stories and a big courtroom drama at the end. This book also gives us a lot of character development for Jane and Melody, in which they both uncomfortably discover that Jane is not as nice and Melody not as shallow as each initially seems.

I have the fourth book, which I hear involves pirates, on hold at the library. *taps foot impatiently*
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
A few weeks ago I had the delightful experience of seeing Gail Carriger at a tea party/book signing at the Brookline Public Library, where I picked up the newest installment of her delightfully madcap steampunk Finishing School series, Waistcoats & Weaponry.

In this one, Sophronia Temminick and a number of her companions plot to escort Sidheag Maccon, Lady Kingair home to her werewolf pack in Scotland, after The Thing happens with Lord Maccon that we had learned about in Alexia’s series, where he goes off to become Alpha of Woolsey. Before this, of course, there is a masquerade ball where, among other ridiculous things, all the household mechanicals go nuts and begin to sing “Rule, Britannia!” and Sophronia gets accidentally secretly engaged to Dimity’s younger brother Pillover.

Over the course of the action-packed adventure to Scotland, in which Sophronia, Sidheag, Dimity, fashionable twit Felix Mersey, and sootie Soap steal a train full of crystalline valve frequensors and their old enemy, vampire drone Monique. They run into diverse problems they must overcome, including low fuel, flywaymen, Dimity’s lamentable lack of cross-dressing savoir-faire, and Felix’s father. In between climbing things, hitting people, and practicing her espionage, Sophronia also has to deal with a lot of tangly difficult mental and emotional issues, such as the obligatory love triangle she’s got herself stuck in with Soap and Felix; whether she wishes to accept Lord Akeldama’s patronage when she finishes; and trying to figure out what the vampires, the Picklemen, the mechanicals, and other interested parties are up to.

My biggest issue with this book is the sad lack of Genevieve Lefoux. No book should fail to have at least a cursory Vieve cameo in it. There had better be some Vieve in Manners & Mutiny.

Carriger seems to get a bit deeper into the numerous shitty social issues of Victorian society with each books, and the results are often kind of awkward, although I think they’re supposed to be awkward. But the fact remains that the stuff that affects the protagonists directly (mostly sexism, although in Alexia’s case there’s also anti-Italian prejudice) is less awkward to read than the stuff that affects other characters and it’s the protagonists who put their foot in it, which happens with some frequency, as the protagonists for both series are straight white gentry ladies. Sophronia’s handling of her obligatory love triangle between Felix and Soap is particularly uncomfortable, because Soap is obviously ten billion times more awesome than Felix, partly because he is a pretty cool dude and partly just because he isn’t Felix.

As usual, the best part about this book is really neither the plot nor the social commentary, but the delightfully absurd language. The worldbuilding is so whimsical it makes Harry Potter look like gritty contemporary realism, and everything has beautifully ridiculous names, both of which reach their epitome in Sophronia’s illegal pet mechanical mini dachshund, Bumbersnoot, who eats coal and occasionally is forced to go undercover as a lacy reticule. Everyone goes around saying things like “I don’t know who you are, but I respect the courage of any man who goes around wearing satin breeches that tight” which I don’t think is an actual thing you were supposed to say in polite Victorian society but who cares. It’s basically complete fluff, but it’s complete fluff with steel-bladed fans and teen girls kicking the asses of pompous adults, which is definitely my favorite kind.

I can’t wait for the fourth one already, especially since I am still very concerned about Professor Braithwope’s mental health.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
People give and recommend books to me at a rate faster than I can read them, because I know many awesome people who are way nicer to me than I deserve, and the result is that it often takes me much longer than I would like to actually read books I acquire.

And then occasionally, someone gives me a book and it looks so awesome and timely and Relevant To My Interests that I actually drop everything and read it next. This is what happened when a friend gave me a paperback copy of Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, a historical fiction police procedural murder mystery set in 1845 New York. Two very important things happened in New York in 1845: one, the NYPD was formed, and two, the Irish potato famine  started, sending waves of destitute Irish flooding into the city, bringing all the misery and social upheaval of rural Ireland with them, and also typhus.

Our protagonist is a young guy named Timothy Wilde, who at the beginning of the story is doing well enough for himself as a bartender, saving up nearly enough money to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him and trying to not get too tangled up with his morphine-addicted firefighter brother Val, who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party machine. Tim and Val are orphans, as their parents had died in a house fire when they were kids, leaving both kids with all sorts of issues and the need to become independent very quickly. Unfortunately for Timothy, another fire incinerates his bar, his house, and all his money, which is how he ends up assigned to Ward Six—the slummiest ward, obviously—as one of the first “copper stars” of the NYPD.

Timothy spends some time breaking up fights and generally feeling miserable until he meets Bird Daly, a ten-year-old “kinchin-mab” (you’ll have to read to find out what that is) who leads him to a horrifying series of crimes involving dismembered children. Timothy, who cares about children more than a lot of people in the mid-nineteenth century, insists upon investigating, and follows a dangerous and convoluted path to the truth, uncovering a lot of sordid secrets about a lot of people along the way—including himself, his brother, and his beloved Mercy Underhill.

The aforementioned sordid secrets are all pulled off really well, both believable and shocking (and not repetitive), in part because the characterization in this book is brilliant. Timothy Wilde is very smart but he is often clueless about certain things that turn out to be rather important, and he’s often—but understandably—misled by his own misunderstandings of people. Valentine is a larger-than-life figure in every way, as you’d hope a guy with a name like “Valentine Wilde” would be, but is surprisingly complex. The secondary characters are hugely colorful, from the sickly children’s doctor Palsgrave to the brash, grown-up-too-fast newsboys. There is literally nobody in this book who is boring, not even Mercy Underhill.

To be frank, I expected Mercy to be boring, because she is the Designated Female Love Interest and they usually are. More so when they are dedicated charitable types—they always come off as squishy, bland, selfless constructs of idealized feminine nurturing whatever. Mercy is none of this. Mercy is a more fully realized character than our narrator has any idea of until about three-quarters of the way through the book. I would love to read a book that was entirely about Mercy Underhill.

One cool thing this book does is that each chapter starts off with a quotation—a standard enough practice these days, and one that I usually enjoy—but instead of being quotes from works of great literature or whatever, they’re all excerpts from letters and news reports and other “nonfiction” pieces of the time. A lot of them are really nasty anti-Catholic propaganda, which I think does a good job of underscoring the degree to which Catholics were considered Definitely Not Christians and to which the Irish were considered Definitely Not White People, which are both things that I think are hard for modern audiences to really grasp—I remember learning in school that yes, every new wave of European immigrants was met with fear and suspicion, but I always kind of assumed that it was only middling-level xenophobia, because the Irish and Italians and other “white ethnic” groups have since become so well-established. But no, the stuff people in the 1840s were saying about Catholics and about the Irish in particular reads today like complete batshit-crazy tin-hattery. Some of the other quotes are about things like the sanitary conditions of New York at the time and newspaper reports on the potato famine. Overall, they’re very well-chosen and really do manage to provide some background, and don’t seem tacked-on at all.

Since this is a big scary sprawling Gothic that took place at an extremely volatile time in New York’s history, I would issue a content/trigger warning for probably every single thing that could warrant a content warning, including graphic murder, child abuse, infanticide, child prostitution, attempted lynching, racism, use of the n-word, fire, gross medical stuff, and probably other things. It’s all handled well, I think, but this is definitely a book for morbid individuals with strong stomachs.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It’s October, and October means it’s time for me to read at least one classic vampire novel. I bought Varney the Vampire last year, but it’s intimidatingly ginormous and I don’t have enough spare time right now, plus I don’t want to lug the stupid thing around on the T. So instead I read J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla, since it is short and I had it on Kindle.

The main thing I knew about Carmilla is that it involves lesbian vampires, or at least as lesbian a vampire as you could get away with publishing in the 1870s. Which actually turned out to be pretty blatantly lesbian, unless of course you are our terribly sheltered and Victorian narratrix, who has never head of lesbians and wonders if maybe Carmilla is actually a dude in disguise like in some of the old romances she’s read, but then decides she’s not manly enough to be a dude in disguise, and is just TERRIBLY BAFFLED.

In many ways, Carmilla follows the form of the traditional Victorian vampire Gothic, taking place in a secluded old schloss somewhere in Eastern Europe. The main character is Laura, the daughter of a British expat, who lives in the aforementioned giant crumbling castle with her aforementioned father, her old nursemaid, her less-old governess, and a handful of servants who are essentially invisible. Their nearest neighbor is an old German expat who lives in the next schloss twenty miles away.

The story begins when the German neighbor’s niece, who was supposed to come visit so that Laura could have a friend her own age, has to cancel her visit because she is unexpectedly dead. However, a carriage accident on the road brings Laura another visitor instead, a sickly but beautiful young woman named Carmilla. Carmilla’s ailment is ill-defined and mysterious but appears to be some sort of chronic fatigue thing, as Carmilla sleeps for much of the day and is locked in her room all night. In traditional folklore-vampire fashion, peasants start dying, one every couple of weeks, and Laura begins having weird dreams and developing a languor similar to Carmilla’s. Much of the book is dedicated to the odd friendship that grows between Carmilla and Laura, in which Laura is mostly delighted to have a friend her own age and partially irritated with Carmilla’s refusal to talk about her life and some of her weird behavior, including her bouts of rapturous affection, which are pretty gay even by Victorian friendship standards. (Victorians had much more affectionate friendships than modern people usually do.)

The plot comes to a head with the visit of the grieving German neighbor, who thinks he has figured out what killed his niece—it was a mysterious lovely guest she’d been hosting. Then there is the usual telling of long backstories and the fun vampire-killing stuff, much as you would expect, all of which is still a great deal of fun for all that it’s been mimicked too many times to be at all surprising.

One thing I particularly liked about this story is that it’s in epistolary form, but there’s little to indicate who the letters are to, except that they are written several years afterwards, and that Laura is writing to some sort of lady who lives in a city, and so feels the need to apologize and explain a lot about what it’s like living in deep seclusion in a castle in the woods. Since I am a lady who lives in a city, this was pretty cool, as it sounded like Laura was addressing me particularly rather than like I was snooping on somebody’s letters.

One thing I liked somewhat less was that the ebook I picked up was an “illustrated” version, but instead of contemporary illustrations (which were cool; I have seen them elsewhere), they were modern photos of random Goth ladies—very pretty pictures, but that didn’t really seem to fit. But I suppose you get what you pay for when you decide to get the free ebook versions of public-domain classics.

Overall, though, Carmilla was a fun, quick read, and why the hell aren’t there more lesbian vampires? Or lady vampires at all, really—there were a lot of gay vampires back when people still cared about Anne Rice and obviously there have recently been quite a lot of broody heterosexual dude vampires, but the ladies always seem to be secondary characters. More female main vampires, please! Or perhaps I’m just reading the wrong books, in which case, will somebody point me toward the right ones?
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the very cool things about attending nerdy literary conventions like Readercon is that you can pick up unusual little hard-to-find books. This past Readercon, in honor of the awesome Memorial Guest of Honor, Mary Shelley, I picked up a little limited-run paperback--scarcely more than a pamphlet--called The Mortal Immortal: The Complete Supernatural Short Fiction. While Mary Shelley wrote a lot of things besides Frankenstein, it looks like she only wrote five pieces of supernatural short fiction. But now I have all of them!

First off, the cover is gorgeous, a textured gray with the the text made to look like a gravestone rubbing. The text is a nice atmospheric sort of tiny cramped round serif font, which is very old-timey, but it gets a little wearing to read, and also it's not right-justified and suffers from random line breaks. Overall, though, it is a very pretty book.

Before getting to the five stories, there is a meandering and somewhat self-indulgent introduction, framed as a short story wherein a middle-aged Mary Shelley returns from the dead and snarks at the book's editor. But only a little--I think it would have improved with some additional snarking, honestly. The reanimation conceit fits very well with Mary Shelley's works, as it is a theme she returned to time and time again; it works slightly less well in that the narrator manages to not narrate himself enough to establish himself as a character I care about, but enough that I feel like I'm sitting through him talking about himself. Also, he seems to be mimicking the highly detailed, overwritten prose style of the period, which, dude, there's a reason we stopped writing like that when we invented proper editing software. It does provide some solid background information on what Mary Shelley did with her life and her writing after all the fun exciting bits with Frankenstein and Percy Shelley getting his fool self drowned that you always hear about, at any rate.

The first story is The Mortal Immortal: A Tale, which brings us into the fun madcap world of Agrippa and alchemy, and reminded me that I still need to read that third Deb Harkness book. Our narrator is a hapless former apprentice of the famed alchemist, who has a haughy, demanding girlfriend, and is also an idiot who doesn't know the first thing about lab safety (literally the first thing you learn in a modern school, which is don't put anything in your fucking mouth). Idiot narrator eats a science experiment that causes him to age imperceptibly slowly, which causes issues in his marriage with Haughty Demanding Lady. (Her name is actually Bertha, as in the apropos Grateful Dead lyric, "Bertha, don't you come around here anymore.") Overall, it is an endearing story about two idiots, which eventually turns into a meditation on how age affects our relationships.

The second story is entitled Transformation, about a reckless young Italian lad who is, quite frankly, an asshole. He is in love with his guardian's daughter, but then he goes off to Paris and makes reckless party boy friends and spends all his money and becomes even more of an asshole, which results in a big family drama wherein he tries to kidnap the girl he wants to marry--twice. All this changes when, wandering around in a penniless rage, he meets a magical dwarf. No, he seriously does meet a magical dwarf, who offers to switch their bodies for three days in exchange for all sorts of riches, so that he can attempt to woo his girlfriend again (don't ask me how this was supposed to work) but then there are plot twists and he almost dies and becomes less of an asshole, the end. This story was really quite a lot of fun, what with all the kidnappings and fight scenes and almost dying.

The third story, Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, is not only the weirdest story in the book, but possibly the weirdest use of epistolary form I have ever seen. It's in the form of a newspaper article, that basically apologizes for not being able to get an interview with Mr. Dodsworth, and then goes on about the science of how he reanimated (cryogenics, basically), and the circumstances under which he was found, and then proceeds to speculate about what it must have been like for him. I'm not used to "speculative fiction" meaning "fiction in which people sit around speculating about stuff," but that seems to be what this is. Anyone who complains about Roger Walton should very definitely not read this story.

The Dream gets us back to more conventional storytelling form, with a regular third-person narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. This is also my favorite piece in the book, possibly because it's the only one with a female protagonist. Our heroine, Constance, is planning on getting herself to a nunnery, because her whole family is dead after a brutal fight with her boyfriend's family, as they have been enemies for years yadda yadda medieval stuff. The King of France visits her to try and talk her into not going to the nunnery, and her boyfriend, also the only surviving member of his family, comes to convince her to take him back or else he will go off to die heroically in Palestine. Constance decides to let St. Catherine decide for her by spending the night on a religiously significant ledge over a river. I must wonder how often this is actually how people made major life decisions back in olden times.

The last story, Valerius: The Reanimated Romani, at least has the good grace to feature actual transcriptions of our reanimated dude talking and thinking about things, although there's not much of a story arc to this one. To be quite honest, it is like 90% bitching about how terrible and degraded 19th century Italy was and how the Roman Republic was so much better. (It's a bit funny if you know about how much Mary Shelley hated Italy.) Also the friendship he strikes up with a young married English lady sounds . . . not solely friendlike.

I'm super excited that I read this, but honestly, Frankenstein is clearly still the masterpiece.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People first came to my attention when my father sent me a New York Times article about Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia. I got all excited when I saw that it was the same author as The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (of all time!), which I read back in college and which was absolutely fascinating. And then one day, there it was, staring up at me from the bargain nonfiction table at Brookline Booksmith which I should probably never be allowed to walk past again, all in hardcover with nice thick ivory pages and a lovely engraving of starving people in rags picking moss off the rocks on a beach.

The Graves Are Walking is just as fascinating as The Great Mortality, and it is notably more political. This is unsurprising, as the Great Hunger has always been highly political event—doubly so in the minds of the Irish and their descendants, and I will eat my copy of the book if a dude named “John Kelly” isn’t at least partly Irish.  (The British at the time considered the famine to have been sent by Providence, but the Irish have always been quite steadfast in maintaining that Providence only sent the potato blight; the famine was England’s fault.) While Kelly gives credit where credit is due, debunking various conspiracy theories that inevitably cropped up in the wake of mass devastation and taking note of the strengths and weaknesses of all the involved historical notables, he also has no qualms about straight-up judging various policies and policy ideas as good, or bad, or ridiculous, or disastrous, or downright insane. It’s fairly hard to argue with his conclusions, though, if you have any belief that mass death is indeed bad and that government has any responsibility to try to rein it in.

The book, it must be noted, doesn’t cover the whole famine, which is generally considered to have lasted for about eight years, from 1845 through 1852. Instead, it gives a very thorough and detailed account on a wide range of topics up through “Black 47”— the worst year of the famine, 1847 (and also the name of a New York Irish rock band, because of course) (please note that I have no idea if they’re actually any good or not so if anyone wants to check them out and report back, that’d be great). This gets us through most of the story about policy formulation, which is the heart of the book. By 1848, the British basically had their new Poor Laws in place and just stuck to their policies regardless of what was happening for the next several years, so we really only get a cursory look at that time period.

We get some history of Ireland before the famine, which is pretty essential to understanding why Ireland was so incredibly fucked up that a crop failure that occurred worldwide would turn into the largest loss of life in the 19th century in just the one country. At the time, everyone had their own ideas about why Ireland was such an ungovernable mess, some of which boiled down to simple racism and ass-covering—there was a popular idea in England that the “Celtic temperament” meant that the Irish were “incapable of self-government,” which I guess was a justification when it came to Britain owning Ireland but a complaint when running it turned out to be work—but a surprising amount of which all converged on one opinion, a theme which pervades the whole book, which is that the Irish landholding system was fucked and its landlords were fuckers. There are politer ways to say that, but I’m not sure any of them can concisely describe quite how nonsensical this system was nor how maliciously and willfully useless and whiny the entire landowning class was. They don’t do a single thing in the whole book that doesn’t manage to piss off everybody. The landowners were mostly members of the “Protestant Ascendancy,” ethnically English Anglicans who had been awarded land in Ireland when the Penal Laws in the centuries earlier destroyed the native Catholic gentry by barring Catholics from owning land, living in incorporated towns, etc. The Penal Laws had since been repealed, but not until a small class of now “Anglo-Irish” Protestants had taken over everything the Catholics had been dispossessed of and were firmly ensconced as the top rung of society. Most of the aristocratic landowners resided more or less permanently in England and subcontracted the actual running of their farms to a rapacious class of middlemen, and their goal was basically to get as much money out of their estates as possible so they could continue to afford to live in London or wherever year-round and never have to actually go home. While the British had installed these people into power, after a century or two, their unending reluctance to actually administrate their land or do right by their tenants in any way was earning them the ire of those elements of British political society who wanted Ireland to be a functioning and well-run part of the Union. The Anglo-Irish seem to be considered English—or at least, a tool of British oppression—by the Catholic/Gaelic Irish, and Irish by the frustrated English. By the summer of 1847, even the Canadians hated them!

In addition to history, we get some really quite interesting science and medical reporting—the author is actually a medical journalist by trade—about the potato blight, the effects of starvation, the various pestilences that began to ravage the island in 1846, when the weakened immune systems of a malnourished population met a spate of terrible weather and a stupid and cruel public works system that had people outside, building and breaking up (ugly, useless, badly planned, and leading-to-nowhere) roads, in all conditions. Seriously, don’t read this book unless you’ve got a strong stomach, because you’re going to learn all about typhus, relapsing fever, scurvy, dysentery, and starvation. We also get a lot of human-interest anecdote type pieces—the stories of individual peasants, officials, landlords, doctors, policemen, people from all walks of life who either recorded what they saw or whose stories were recorded by others. From the farmer in Skibbereen whose wife’s head was dug up out of her grave by a starving dog, to the peasant John Costello, whose cabin was torn down without warning on the orders of a landlord he hadn’t even seen in nine years, we see the devastation of the famine through the eyes of the souls that lived it—or, in many cases, that didn’t live through it. These anecdotes are well spaced, seamlessly woven around discussions of bills, laws, finances, food aid, political theorizing, and demographic statistics, so the academic stuff is never presented too far from the people it affected. It gives the whole book a moving narrative quality that I really appreciate.
About halfway through the book, we leave Ireland, following the path of the famine emigrants as they fled Ireland in droves, often penniless and half-dressed, packed onto tight, unseaworthy “coffin ships” that exacerbated all the health problems that had broken out in the population as a result of starvation, bad weather, and social instability. Illiterate, many of them Irish speakers with little or no English, often lacking in any sort of marketable skills due to the extreme poverty and low standard of living in Ireland even before the famine—we’re talking about people who couldn’t scrub a floor because they’d never seen a non-dirt floor before—the famine Irish overwhelmed the immigration infrastructure in Liverpool, in Quebec, in New York, everywhere they went, bringing with them the squalor, disease, and social upheaval they’d been fleeing from just as much as the starvation. (This is the bit where the gentle Canadians hated the Anglo-Irish landlords—many landlords, while unwilling to provide employment for their tenants, were willing to front the cost of a ticket to Canada in order to clear out their “excess” tenants and turn their land into large commercial farms. With droves of dispossessed former tenants showing up on their shores and causing a typhus outbreak all along the St. Lawrence river, the Quebecois, doubly unhappy between sympathy for the peasants that had been tossed away like garbage and fear of the actual effects of huge numbers of fever-ridden people turning up and dying on their shores, excoriated the Irish landed classes in the press in a way that I’ve never seen Canadians excoriate anybody.) We learn how the Irish were received abroad—not well—and their bumpy journey towards establishing themselves, particularly the development of the Irish-American community in major U.S. cities.

The real center of the book, however, is the bumbling-arse efforts at relief and emergency control put forth by the English and Irish political classes, and particularly the ways in which ideological commitment to various political fashions—free-marketeering, Moralism, Malthusianism, etc.—got in the way of the relief effort’s ability to be either compassionate or effective. Sir Charles Trevelyan doesn’t come off here as quite the callous genocidal monster he’s generally portrayed as in the Irish folk memory, but he’s certainly an asshole, and his condescension, lack of sensitivity, arrogance, and commitment to Moralist beliefs meant that even his most genuine good-faith efforts to mitigate the crisis frequently come off as almost willfully misguided. A number of the British political elites, mindful of the political truism that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, tried to use the crisis generated by the crop failure as a mechanism to modernize the Irish economy—ending the barter economy and potato dependence, and getting the Irish peasants onto a cash wage so they could purchase their food instead of growing it—and to teach the Irish peasantry good work habits, personal responsibility, end their “dependence on government,” all that sort of thing. As someone whose Baby’s First Irish History narratives and general family milieu growing up were all informed by the opinion that the British government was never a legitimate government in Ireland and was always a foreign occupation, every mention of Irish “dependence on government” reads like abuser logic to me—pissing and moaning that the victim isn’t doing stuff that you’re actively preventing them from doing, acting like they’re stupid that they’re making it sooo hard for you to control them—it was actually quite difficult for me to put myself into the minds of the British statesmen who honestly and legitimately believed that the “Union” was actually one Kingdom and the Kingdom should be administrated in a nice efficient freedom-maximizing way. I kept thinking “If you want to see how they self-govern you could maybe give them their country back…” although subsequent Irish history has shown that it might actually be true that the Irish are politically skilled at everything except running a country. Anyway, between ideological rigidity, some really stupid administrative clerking mistakes (REALLY stupid, not minor mistakes, stuff you should have multiple people look at and sign off on), various incompetent people overselling their experiences and getting stuck in jobs way too big for them, Nature herself seeming quite determined to make the job as hard as possible, and the stone-cold recalcitrant stupidity and whining of the large landowners, the crop failure was practically guaranteed to turn into a full famine.

A lot of this had to do with “Indian corn,” or what we in the U.S. just call corn (in England, “corn” refers to all cereal grains, apparently). I’d heard before that corn was part of the issue because Ireland had little experience with it, and I assumed it meant the populace didn’t know how to cook it. This could certainly be a problem, since improperly prepared corn can cause digestive issues. This turned out to not be correct—any idiot can boil up cornmeal and water into an unappetizing but more or less edible mush, once you have properly ground cornmeal. No, the issue here was the merchants and government officials who ordered whole kernel dried corn from the U.S. and didn’t have the knowledge or infrastructure to mill it, since corn has to be ground differently than wheat or barley. Yet the government continued to rely on corn in a deliberate attempt to have corn replace potatoes as the staple food of the Irish, planning that it would stay this way even when the famine was over. One of the reasons they did this was due to a weird Victorian belief that cereal grains were “higher” foods than potatoes, that they had more nutritional content (corn, at any rate, doesn’t), and that they “encouraged thrift” and other weird shit that food doesn’t do. The other reason is that you can’t grow corn in Ireland, so it would have to be purchased, thus forcing the Irish to work for cash wages so they could buy it. It takes some serious ideological commitment to look at the situation of the Irish peasant in the mid-1800s and determine that the issue was that they didn’t have enough middlemen in their lives getting between themselves and their ability to acquire life basics, and what they really needed was a whole supply chain inserted between themselves and their food. It takes double ideological blinders to do this while simultaneously complaining that the Irish weren’t self-sufficient enough.

Overall, this book is an amazing work of nonfiction, and I recommend it to… well, people who like Game of Thrones, really. It’s got similar levels of squalor and violence and horror, the cast of characters is about as big, and there are ample opportunities for getting really hopped up on hating on people saying and doing stupid things and a couple of satisfying moments where other people call them out on it (“The landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges … [but] neither does any landlord in England turn out 50 people at once and burn their houses over their heads” –Lord John Russell, regarding several murders of landlords). It’s quite difficult to write a truly boring book on Irish history, because it’s been so weird for so long, but The Graves Are Walking looks at one of the most messed-up times in a long messed-up history and really pulls no punches.


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