Monday, October 30, 2006

The Unburied

The Unburied
My final entry in the R.I.P. 2006 Autumn Challenge!

Title: The Unburied

Author: Charles Palliser

Copyright: 1999

Length: 402 pages (link to work on LibraryThing )

Summary: The plot centers around an historian visiting an old friend who has contacted him after a lengthy separation. He visits his colleague at Thurchester with the intent of making good use of his time by researching documents in the cathedral library that will set him on the path to an important discovery relevant to his specialty of early British history, specifically the period surrounding King Alfred (he of the famous burned cakes). During the week he is in Thurchester, there is a murder, a suicide, a corpse unearthed from prior centuries, a crumbling cathedral, a crisis at the choir school and a complex set of revelations to be deciphered and grasped. It is this last aspect of The Unburied that has put off many readers; it is indeed a most complex literary construction. This is not a book that can be skimmed rapidly. As one reviewer put it at LibraryThing, "This isn't a beach read." There are two narratives (the outer frame by a Mr. Barthelm and the lengthier internal story told by Dr. Courtine) and there are several manuscripts and stories (the fragmented historical manuscript, the fairy tale, and the completed manuscript that provides the final explanation of The Thurchester Mystery.) Each narrative unfolds as a segment of another and the result (as many unwary readers found) is a gothic novel that requires extended attention if one is to grasp both the resolution and the author's point.

Eerie/Creepy Quotient: This is a gothic novel, not a ghost story. It is on the creepy side, but it is not perhaps conventionally scary (a 3.75 out of 5 on the eerie/creepy scale). There are tragedies and shadowy encounters, but in the final analysis, this is an elegant historical/psychological mystery. One could read this in a house alone without fear of nightmares, but I must say that it might not be a pleasant experience. One would ultimately grasp the final resolution and be somewhat distressed/sickened. As modern Gothic novels go, this one is very well-done.Genre: Definitely a Gothic novel. Definitely adult reading. This one doesn't belong in your average high school library (not that most of them can afford to buy much in the way of books these days).

Extract: Go here for the extract. Do bear in mind that this is *not* the first chapter of the book as the NYTimes' site suggests. It is actually the first chapter within the Courtine narrative. That's relevant when you actually begin the book, because you may assume (as I did) that the editor's foreword is just that. A foreword (as in prefatory material) and not part of the novel's action.

Also Relevant: There were mixed reviews on this book. The New York Times panned it badly although the book showed up on the New York Times bestsellers list published the week following the review. Various other readers, posting well after its initial publication, had both good and bad reactions to the novel. As near as I can gauge it, the general consensus is praise for the construction of the novel but unhappiness with the final resolution. I think I'd agree. I'm not sorry I read it, but neither am I sure that it would be a suitable selection for a general book group. Say that it has niche appeal, and you've probably captured it.

The book's complexity makes it challenging, but a careful pacing of one's reading allows the author to unfold his message which is essentially that perception influences internal and external assignment of guilt. (That's certainly a valid point, but not perhaps news to a modern audience used to discussions of profiling in criminal investigations. This may be why some readers become impatient with his story-telling style.) Palliser makes his point by allowing his characters to focus on and unfold historical events, tracing criss-crossing versions of those events. I do think The Unburied suffers from a lack of distinction between the voices of those attempting to unravel the various threads of mystery. To my ear, all of the voices sounded just a little too like one another. One could barely keep them straight even while one was struggling to remember who was who among the various names (Gazzard vs. Grimlake; Speldrick vs Sisterson). That was indeed aggravating, which is why (I suppose) the publisher provided a list of the various characters at the end of the text. [One final warning: if you dislike tales involving child abuse, you should *definitely* avoid this one.]

As with all Gothic literature, various forms of uncertainty thread through this book. Such uncertainty reflects the fears that accompany an internal recognition that things don't always happen as planned. Actions have unintended consequences which teaches us to watch and proceed with caution. The message for at least one of the characters in The Unburied is that such caution may preclude us from taking the necessary actions to free ourselves from doubt.

As modern renditions of Gothic novels go, I preferred Grange House to this selection. The convoluted narrative is present in both as is the voice of an earlier age, but Blake seems to have the knack of moving her story along at just that slightly faster pace that satisfies the modern reader's need to move along quickly before a daily obligation arises and eliminates reading time.

By the way, I actually learned a new word from this book - pulpitum. Look it up. St. Peter's Cathedral in Exeter (UK) apparently has a very nice one.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Completing the Challenge

Or rather it would be better to say, this post is intended to convey that I'm working towards completing the RIP 2006 Autumn Challenge. With a business trip, two business events and a book talk at the local library during the past two weeks, time has been somewhat crunched. Oh, yes; one of the boys came home for the weekend as well. And I still have to cook dinner and clean the bathroom...

But I am more than halfway through Charles Palliser's The Unburied which is my last title for this Challenge, which ends Tuesday, October 31st.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Responding to a Meme

I found this meme at a variety of blogs and decided to answer the questions just for the purpose of providing a better sense of how I approach reading as an activity.

Total number of books owned:
I have nearly 600 titled cataloged on Library Thing, but I know that I would have closer to a thousand if I got everything cataloged. And since I keep things rolling through the shelves, I'm sure I've probably owned collectively two thousand titles over the course of my life.

Last book bought:
Imaginary Gardens: The Lives of Five American Poets by Dr. Rosemary Sprague. Earlier this week. Think Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Milay, etc. Read it in college in the mid-seventies and felt like revisiting. I don't often get into a mood for poetry but it comes around periodically.

Last book read:
The War of the Worlds; now reading Shooting at Loons for a book talk at the library this week and The Unburied as my last book in the RIP challenge. I suspect I'm going to like The Unburied more than most of the reviewers on Amazon did.

Five books that mean a lot to you: -- Well, I'll do only three.

An Old Fashioned Girl, by Louisa May Alcott. I still own the copy I got for my 10th or 11th birthday. It is so out-of-fashion, and yet it made more sense to me growing up than almost any other book I owned. Yes, it may suffer from the moral tone of nineteenth-century children's literature, but Alcott's views on learning how to stick to your own principles and stand on your own two feet while living amongst people who may not share those values is a good lesson for growing up.

My favorite chapter is this one. It gives a sense to young girls what they ought to strive to become as strong adult women. Certainly, what I've felt a woman ought to be has been shaped by that description. It's a portrait of strength and recognition of all the things women can do.

It is true I don't re-read it often enough, but I love the book and take heart from it every time I do re-read it. Without cheating on the boundaries of the question, I will say that I have all of Louisa May Alcott's children's books on my shelf and see no reason to be ashamed of re-reading Eight Cousins or Rose in Bloom now when I'm in my fifties. And while people cry over Beth's death in Little Women, I cried as a little girl when Demi's father died in Little Men.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This is meaningful to me for what some might consider to be a foolish reason but a friend once told me that he thought this story was absolutely indicative of my overall personality. There is a segment in Jane Eyre where she is observing her adult cousin, Eliza, and how she spends her day. Eliza studies a little book and when Jane investigates, she sees it is "a common prayerbook". She asks Eliza what the attraction of it is for her and Eliza responds "the Rubric". When I was in junior high or high school, this sent me out to buy a Book of Common Prayer to find out what the Rubric actually was. I was somewhat disappointed when I finally understood that the Rubric was just the description of the ceremonial procedures used in the liturgy, but that step from reading one work of literature to reading another is pretty much how I've built up my philosophies and attitudes over time. Besides that, Jane Eyre is the perfect book to read in sweats on a snow day.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I've no idea why, except that I do enjoy watching Mildred work her way through real-life challenges. Probably it's the very Britishness of the book that charms me (so alien and yet so recognizable) . There's a wonderful bit where she and an old school chum go on a bus tour to a cathedral and Pym's observations of each little tourist group are dead-on! I so enjoy Pym's character development, gentle yet realistic. Each individual in the book is so *very* clueless at times (Julian, Winifred, Allegra Grey, Rockingham, even Mildred herself at times). I've kept this book with me for years and years as well. I think I first read it at some point in my twenties or thirties.

I can't name for sure what other books "mean alot to me." By and large, I think I return to favorite authors more frequently than I return to specific works. Ursula K. LeGuin, P.D. James, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, etc. Specific works evoke affection or act as milestones for specific points in my life. I read Jane Austen's Emma when confined to bed during a rough pregnancy, and it's the book by Jane Austen I like the least. I have a certain fondness for The Wind in the Willows which I read as a child, but I haven't gone back to it very often. (My favorite chapter there is Dolce Domum where Mole and Ratty trip over Mole's old home in the snow.) I came to appreciate Margery Allingham's Campion mysteries only in the past ten years (and I really only like the early ones...).

I re-visit books from across the span of my life. I really believe that you can't appreciate a work until you've read it more than once, even if it's only light reading. The first time you read it is for the story; the second and third times are when you can actually gauge the intent and skill of the author.

This makes me sound so conservative and I'm not really.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
Another entry in the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Autumn Challenge

Title: The War of the Worlds (full text at Project Gutenberg).

Author: H.G. Wells (brief biography)

Copyright: 1898 (ie. this work is in the public domain); The Penguin print edition that I used was copyright 2005 (See work on Library Thing ).

Length: 173 pages, excluding introduction, preface, and footnotes.

Summary: An academic gentleman experiences the invasion of his safe, secure existence by Martians who view the local population as a food source rather than as any equal entity with whom they might negotiate. The academic interacts with a curate and with an artilleryman, each of whom has a unique perspective on how to manage and/or survive the unforeseen circumstances. Ultimately, Man survives but with a changed sense of his position in the universe. This is a good read; it fits within the context of the RIP criteria on the basis of the atmospheric, melancholic series of destructive events. Man as a race does not perform with overmuch nobility in this crisis. Naturally, as Englishmen, the narrator and his brother maintain a certain sense of duty and maintain a certain level of responsibility for those about them. But the internal check on civilized behavior slips as the narrator himself admits when it comes to the question of basic survival or death.

Eerie/Creepy Quotient: Perhaps a 3.5 or even just a 3. Not overly scary in the sense of monsters in the night, but there's a definite sense of suspense and fear present in the narration. Certainly, there's no reason *not* to read this book in a house alone at night. Our modern sensibilities are less apt to believe in the Martian invasion than in the ghost of some previous tenant wringing his hands over his wealth left behind. But the writing is very good and pacing is consistent. There is some sense of character granted to the narrator although the curate and the artilleryman are clearly intended to represent schools of thought or archetypes rather than being fleshed out as recognizable individuals. The fear I suppose that is inherent to this book is the fear that comes with recognition of one's own vulnerability rather than fear of any BEM (bug-eyed-monster). Or for that matter, the fear that arises at the idea of war coming to one's familiar area. Eerie/Creepy aren't appropriate words to apply here; Uneasy might be.

Genre: Speculative Fiction -- Appropriate to 10-13 year olds and older could benefit from some of the discussions that emerge here with regard to human response to crisis.

Extract (from Book 1, Chapter 16):

There were sad, haggard women tramping by, well dressed, with children that cried and stumbled, their dainty clothes smothered in dust, their weary faces smeared with tears. With many of these came men, sometimes helpful, sometimes lowering and savage. Fighting side by side with them pushed some weary street outcast in faded black rags, wide-eyed, loud-voiced, and foul-mouthed. There were sturdy workmen thrusting their way along, wretched, unkempt men, clothed like clerks or shopmen, struggling spasmodically; a wounded soldier my brother noticed, men dressed in the clothes of railway porters, one wretched creature in a nightshirt with a coat thrown over it.

But varied as its composition was, certain things all that host had in common. There were fear and pain on their faces, and fear behind them. A tumult up the road, a quarrel for a place in a waggon, sent the whole host of them quickening their pace; even a man so scared and broken that his knees bent under him was galvanised for a moment into renewed activity. The heat and dust had already been at work upon this multitude. Their skins were dry, their lips black and cracked. They were all thirsty, weary, and footsore. And amid the various cries one heard disputes, reproaches, groans of weariness and fatigue; the voices of most of them were hoarse and weak. Through it all ran a refrain:

“Way! Way! The Martians are coming!”

Also Relevant: This is an interesting read on a number of levels. For one thing, just as there are numerous attempts to dramatize for screen The Island of Dr. Moreau, there have been similar attempts at dramatization of The War of the Worlds. There was the admittedly successful radio show by Orson Welles which created such havoc in 1938. (For more information, go here.) One of the amusing things I encountered when browsing this book initially was the shock of recollection that the story was actually set in England -- in Woking rather than in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Somehow internally, I had classified War of the Worlds as a twentieth century American experience, rather than a nineteenth-century British novel despite my knowledge of Wells and his timeframe. At the same time, even before reading the original novel, I had never thought that any of the movies of War of the Worlds were very good. The movies present The War of the Worlds as a story about Bug-Eyed-Monsters and our vulnerability in the face of greater technological weapons than our own.

I think that Wells was writing here to make a different point about an immediate issue in his time and culture (ie. integration of Darwinist thought into the popular consciousness). He uses the invasion by more advanced creatures as a trigger device for introducing a new idea to his fellow Victorians and as a philosophical suggestion as to how they might go on once the idea had been fully integrated. Rather than being the apex of God's creation, the invasion by the Martians suggests that man is neither at the top of the biological family nor at the bottom. His lack of characterization in portraying the curate and the artilleryman is to suggest that the right response is neither to surrender to despair (as the curate does) nor to indulge one's baser instincts (as he suggests when he accuses the artilleryman of gluttony). There is the middle ground found by the narrator in the end of the story which is neither surrender nor a ratlike survival. Instead Wells offers the recognition that we can only progress from where we are as creatures, being aware that there are forces in nature which take over and we must submit to the limits of our own knowledge of those forces and consequent lack of control. He was examining that idea for strength as one might test a bridge to see if it can hold one's weight.

Wells presents an England in chaos due to the arrival of the Martians. But in the chapter, The Man on Putney Hill, he reasserts the place of a human being. Hubris is dangerous as there are those forces in nature that we cannot and may never control, but cowering in fear is equally unacceptable. Humankind should neither be arrogant nor frightened by their place in nature -- just recognize that such is the situation and act accordingly.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Noted In Passing

Just item in passing.

From Bookworm, an entry discussing The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Worth Noting

Worth Noting

Just came across the wonderful blog: Pages Turned. She too is participating in the RIP Autumn Challenge but her entry (just read) on the memories captured when she reviews a previous year's reading journal charmed me, matching as it does my own feelings on the subject.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Not Now, Please

Don't bother me for the moment; I'm reading...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Substitute Title

Formal Announcement of Substitution

All that, just to say that I'm *not* going to re-read Dracula this fall for the RIP Autumn Challenge. I am instead going to substitute The Unburied by Charles Palliser.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Miscellaneous Links

RIP Reading Links:

--Michael Chabon on M.R. James (Montague Rhodes James) Good line: "These are stories that venture to the limits of the human capacity for terror and revulsion, as it were, armed only with an umbrella and a very dry wit."

--From the Toronto Star: Article regarding a lawsuit against H.G. Wells for plagiarism. Via The Library Ladder .

--An H.G. Wells ghost story: The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost. I like the technique of the humorous tale of the ghost linked to the "real" ghost story. Similar to what James' had specified in terms of making the reader feeling thoroughly at east in the setting before you introduce the discomforting elements.

--Useful resource: Glossary of Literary Gothic Terms

--Finally, written as background for a dramatic presentation, Ghost Talk. Briefly relates the ghost story to folklore.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Grange House

Grange House
Another entry in the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Autumn Challenge

Title: Grange House

Author: Sarah Blake (interview/article from December 2004 issue of the The American Online)

Copyright: 2000

Length: 378 pages ( link to the work on LibraryThing )

Genre: Gothic Fiction, Women's Fiction

Summary: Maisie Thomas visits the island with her loving parents every summer. At seventeen, she is just beginning to sense the constraints placed on her in 1896 in a world where men and women have specific roles. This is a coming-of-age story, full of ambiguities and misunderstandings. Essentially, the question is will Maisie make the same mistakes as those who have gone before?

Eerie/Creepy Quotion: To borrow the phrase of M.R. James, this story is able to provide a delicious sense of unease in the reader, but it is not primarily either a ghost or horror story. It is in fact a true gothic novel (reminiscent in some ways of Jane Eyre without any of the same plot points) and so very compelling and well-written that one has to award it a 4 out of 5 on the eerie scale. I was most pleased to see that it could stand up to a second reading.


There was a drop of wind suddenly, as though the world rushed away before turning to deliver one last mighty smack -- and just as the doctor and Nell Grange appeared in sight of the house, the first great towering flame shot straight up through the roof and into the sky. Nell screamed and threw herself down from the cart, running up the lawn. But another flame burst from the third-story windows, and the woman was pushed back from the house by the wave of heat. "Susannah!" Nell shouted, "Susannah!" The roar of the wind and fire was her only answer. [pg. 73]

Also Relevant: There are multiple triangles in this story -- tension between lovers, families, women. There are multiple narratives in this story -- letters, diaries, oral reminiscences -- presenting multiple points of view, each pov needing to be fitted into the life puzzle that Maisie Thomas is trying to work out. Of course, no one is quite as they seem. Families are ripped to pieces yet remain painfully chained. Is there madness in the household? Is there murder? The pace of the storytelling is slow; the reader, however, would be well-advised not to speed ahead. The novel is carefully constructed, deliberately furtive, and the author's meaning is uncovered little by little in each lengthy chapter. The point of the novel is Maisie's own navigation in discovering who she really is and what she wants of life. Just as in real life, that process unfolds in fits and spurts of action with time for reflection in between. It's superb writing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Phantom Rickshaw

The Phantom Rickshaw
By Rudyard Kipling
Another entry in the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Autumn Challenge

This Sunday for a while, I was browsing through the LitGothic site and found Rudyard Kipling as one of their listed authors. I had never read the short story The Phantom Rickshaw before and figured it would do as something light for 3:30 in the afternoon. For whatever reason, I suspect it is now lodged in my brain; it's not a terribly frightening story but it does have some staying power. There is the unhappy situation between Theobald Pansay and Agnes Wessington which never fully resolves itself. Pansay is, in the words of Dr. Heatherlegh, something of a blackguard, but that hardly seems to justify the haunting which overtakes him and wrecks his existence.

I may now have to go find and read his short story, They

Extract from The Phantom Rickshaw:

The scene and its surroundings were photographed on my memory. The rain-swept sky (we were at the end of the wet weather), the sodden, dingy pines, the muddy road, and the black powder-riven cliffs formed a gloomy background against which the black and white liveries of the jhampanies, the yellow-paneled ’rickshaw and Mrs. Wessington’s down-bowed golden head stood out clearly. She was holding her handkerchief in her left hand and was leaning hack exhausted against the ’rickshaw cushions. I turned my horse up a bypath near the Sanjowlie Reservoir and literally ran away. Once I fancied I heard a faint call of “Jack!.... A week later Mrs. Wessington died, and the inexpressible burden of her existence was removed from my life"