Friday, September 21, 2018

RIP XIII #5: Jurgen

Why does this lady have this face?
Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell

I like weird Dover reprints of weird old books, so I picked this up somewhere a while back and it's been on the TBR pile.  It's one of those fantasy stories written before Tolkien came along and everybody kind of standardized into the modern genre -- the era of Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison.  So I thought it would be fun, and a good RIP title, but I was wrong.  It was completely meh.

Jurgen was first published in 1919, and somebody promptly tried to ban it, which made it enormously popular.*  This is the "revised and definitive" 1926 version. 

Set in a sort of early modern folktale setting, the story features Jurgen, a pawnbroker and poet, whose bitter, naggy wife Lisa disappears into a cave and is presumably taken by a...devil?  Maybe?  (It's rather unknown until the end.)  Jurgen ventures in and meets a cast of characters, most notably Mother Sereda (Time), and he is so flattering to her that she gives him a year of youth -- or possibly it's a punishment.  He spends it in meeting his first love and various other charming ladies -- I think he gets married three times, not to mention the innumerable girlfriends.

There is a good deal about the charm of first love, and a lot of innuendo, and some rather funny bits when Jurgen is not being tiresomely amorous.  I did enjoy the part where the ghost of his great-grandfather needs help haunting two places at once, and there was a great piece where Jurgen has gotten together with a girl who turns out to be mythological.  After a while she sadly tells him he has to leave:
For in becoming the consort of a nature myth connected with the Moon Jurgen had of course exposed himself to the danger of being converted into a solar legend by the Philologists, and in that event would be compelled to leave Cocaigne with the Equinox...
On the whole, though, this is a great big Don't Bother.  The back cover blurb says it's a "tightly structured symbolic journey of many levels" and I'm sure it knows better than I do, plus also it's supposed to be an influential classic of comic fantasy, but to me it mostly felt like a shapeless mass to slog through for little reward. 

*Don't forget, next week is Banned Books Week, so don't forget to read something for that!  Not Jurgen though.  Try for something more interesting.  Harry Potter, maybe.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

RIP XIII #4: Among Others

Among Others, by Jo Walton

Morwenna is heading off to a fairly posh boarding school.  It's 1979, and boarding school is the last place she wants to be....except for with her mother, which would be much worse.  Mor is Welsh (thus kind of foreign), brainy and bookish, and has to walk with a cane since her accident.  The school is largely focused on games and social standing, so Mor has few friends.  She misses her twin sister (who died), Wales, and the fairies they knew for years.  Mor is the survivor of the magical battle she and her sister fought, and this is the aftermath, the part after the story is ended.  But since Mor is still alive, she needs to find purpose and her place in things -- and maybe the battle isn't quite as over as she thinks.

I liked this novel a lot; it's good stuff, well-written and gripping.  Mor is very lonely, and finds solace in reading SF, and a good chunk of the book is a paean to old-school science fiction writers.  I would say, in fact, that it gets to be quite a bit too much, but it did remind me that I would like to read some James Tiptree, Jr.*  She also performs some magic, and then spends a lot of time trying to figure out the repercussions of what she's done, which I liked very much.  The fairies and magic elements in the story are very well-done.

So instead of traveling from a hum-drum life to a magical boarding school, Mor spends the whole story in a hum-drum boarding school, away from her magic-laden former life.  A fun turn-around.  Highly recommended, but only if you enjoy reading a surprising amount about Robert Silverberg and others.

*Of which none is to be found in my local library.  But my brother did inform me of the existence of BloodHag, a death metal band that writes songs almost exclusively about SF/F authors and the joys of libraries.  I don't care for death metal but I quite liked the clip of "James Tiptree, Jr." I saw in a short film about them, "The Faster You Go Deaf...".  Share and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

RIP XIII #3: Ellen Raskin

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)
Figgs & Phantoms
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

When I was a kid, I read all of these books, and luckily I bought copies sometime in the 90s.  Lots of people have read The Westing Game, which won the Newbery, but the other three are less well-known.  They're all still in print, though!  I find that a little surprising, really, because these are pretty oddball books, and I would bet they'd never get published today.  Happily for us, they were written and published in the 1970s.  Raskin loved weird comedy, typography, puzzles, and puns.

Ellen Raskin wrote and illustrated picture books too, and had a very distinctive style.  My favorite of the picture books is probably Nothing Ever Happens On My Block.

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues: Dickory Dock, wannabe art student, gets a job helping Garson, a society portrait painter.  While Dickory despises Garson's slick, shallow paintings, he teaches her to observe carefully, and together they start solving crimes.  The greatest mystery of all is right in the building, with Garson and the downstairs neighbors.  Weird wordplay and tragi-comedy, set in a very 70s New York City.

 The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel): Two families develop a wonderful soup during the Depression.  To ensure their future, they marry 5-year-old Caroline to 7-year-old Leon, and then send Leon off to boarding school.  Mrs. Carillon is rich and lonely, and she counts on Leon (who has changed his name to Noel) to graduate and come home -- but when they finally meet, their boat tips over.  Leon (Noel)'s message to Mrs. Carillon is half-lost, and he disappears, and she spends years searching for him, trying to decipher the clues.  On the way, she adopts twins Tony and Tina, who just want to settle down...this one is my favorite.  I love the illustrations, which were hand-lettered.

Figgs & Phantoms is the strangest of the books, in which Raskin let her love of typography loose.  Mona Newton is perpetually miserable, belonging as she does to the weirdo Figg-Newton family.  The Figgs used to be circus performers, and the Newtons are pretty odd too, and Mona just can't take it; the only one she likes is her Uncle Florence, who used to dance in vaudeville and now deals in antique books with color plates.  He wants to teach her his love of books, but she's only interested in the business end.  Mona can't stand the idea of losing her uncle, but he keeps hinting that he's going to go to Capri -- the Figg family heaven in their own little religion.  Partly a story about coming to terms with death and finding happiness, partly really strange comedy, I think Figgs & Phantoms is a bit of an acquired taste.  It won a Newbery Honor, though.

The Westing Game is the one everybody knows.  An ill-assorted bunch of people are purposely lured into renting apartments in a new building, just down the hill from the old Westing mansion.  When Sam Westing, who has been missing for years, is found dead in the house, all of the building residents are named heirs and set to find the solution to the mystery -- the prize being the Westing fortune of 200 million dollars.  If you've never tried to solve the puzzle-mystery of Sam Westing's last game, you definitely should.

I can't quite remember now what conversation with my kid made me decide that I needed to read all four of these again, but I'm happy I had them around so that I could!

Monday, September 17, 2018

RIP XIII #2: The White Devil

The White Devil, by John Webster

I'd been meaning to read this play for some time, for reasons which shall be explained hereafter.  Then I needed a classic with a color in the title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and soon a really nice copy came across the donation table, and so I put it at the top of the pile.  Seemed appropriate for RIP...

This is a Jacobean revenge play, performed in 1612, and was a complete flop at the first performance.  Webster blamed this on the audience, which made me raise an eyebrow, but it did in fact do better in 1630.  I found it pretty difficult to read, though; Shakespeare is easier.  This may possibly be because Shakespeare is already familiar..but Webster is hard!  There are a zillion double entendres, the language is extremely tricky, and everybody has Italian names that are too similar.  Keeping everybody straight was part of the problem.

The story is based on an actual event in Italy that happened about thirty years before Webster wrote the play -- the life of Vittoria Accoramboni.  It was a very popular story to dramatize, so there are several versions floating around out there; Stendhal did a novella.

Vittoria is married to a husband she doesn't much like, and the Duke Orsini has fallen madly in love with her.  Vittoria's brother, Flamineo, is ambitious and figures he'll ride his sister's ascending star, so he coordinates the action: Orsini's wife, Isabella de Medici, is murdered, and so is Vittoria's husband.  Now the lovers are free to marry, but Vittoria is put on trial for her husband's murder, while Flamineo pretends madness.  She is not found guilty, but is forcibly put into a Magdalen house.  Orsini eventually gets her out and they marry, but Ludovico, who was in love with the murdered Isabella, is plotting revenge on everybody.  Pretty well everyone dies.

The play has a lot of spectacle in it; Webster was looking to please an audience that liked sensation.  Ghosts, madness, trials, murders, disguises, comic characters -- the play is stuffed with action, but the language is so difficult to follow that it isn't very fun after all.  An actual performance would probably be a lot better.

I was curious about The White Devil because of the title.  The 'devil' is Vittoria -- "a compellingly dangerous and fascinating woman" (back cover blurb) who is happy to let two people be murdered if it will get her what she wants.  She's beautiful, but no good -- 'white' in the sense of whited sepulcher, though it's also implied that the 'white' is sparkly, like diamonds.

Now, Diana Wynne Jones, in The Magicians of Caprona, has the White Devil as the secret villain of the story -- the traditional enemy of the city of Caprona, who has infiltrated the palace and ruled the Duke for years.  In this story, the White Devil is an evil -- enchantress?  witch?  demon? -- who also takes the form of a white rat.  I'd wondered if DWJ had used this play, or its title, as her springboard, and I would say yes, I bet she did.  That's not to say that there is similarity in the stories, but in both cases, the 'white devil' is a woman who works her way into marrying a duke.  DWJ would have known the play, and I'd bet that she found that title phrase inspiring somehow.

Monday, September 3, 2018

RIPXIII #1: The Romance of the Forest

The Romance of the Forest, by Ann Radcliffe

This was such a fun read!  It dates from 1791, before Mysteries of Udolpho or The Italian, and you can kind of tell; not as much happens in this story.  It's kind of quiet for a Gothic novel, but it's also not that long.  I think it's shorter than the later two novels.

We start off with La Motte, who is fleeing Paris with the law on his heels (possibly unjustly).  Lost on a stormy heath, he looks for help at a house, and is quite startled when the ruffians inside shove a teenage girl at him and tell him to take her away if he wants to live.  La Motte, his wife, and Adeline -- our heroine -- end up lost in a forest, where they find a ruined abbey and take shelter inside.  Their trusty servant Peter talks them into staying, and fixes it up so it's livable.  But!  there's a skeleton in a chest in a secret tunnel; what nameless horrors have occurred here?  And the abbey's owner, the Marquis, shows up and thinks Adeline would make a nice mistress for him; how can she escape his clutches?

Adeline is not only the most virtuous character around, she's usually the smartest and the most determined too.  She faints pretty often, though.  Also, since apparently only about ten people live in France, they keep running into each other.

My very favorite thing about this story is when Adeline is kidnapped and taken to a house of decadence and vice, there to be forced into mistresshood.  The way you know it's an evil place is not only how luxurious and delicate the decor is -- it's that
The walls were painted in fresco, representing scenes from Ovid...busts of Horace, Ovid, Anacreon, Tibullus, and Petronius Arbiter adorned the recesses...
Yep.  A bust of Anacreon is a sure giveaway!  You gotta love that, right?  But the Marquis changes his mind about Adeline, and not because he repents.

So much fun; I love reading silly Gothic novels.  I should do Udolpho again sometime -- I read it long ago and I remember what was behind the horrid black veil but just about nothing else.  (Reading that and Lewis' Discarded Image at the same time resulted in some really interesting dreams!)


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

He's being strangled by the plant, see
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

I first read this fairly early Orwell novel back in college, and I still have my old copy.  I liked it then and I like it now, though I can't quite explain why; probably for reasons opposite to what Orwell meant.

Gordon Comstock, wannabe poet, has declared war on Money.  His theory is that everybody (especially women) worship the Money-God, and he's going to refuse to participate in this corrupt, shallow, venial society.  His family has come down in the world, so he has a sort-of-public school education, but has never had the money for a leisured, upper-class lifestyle.  Instead the only job he could find was at an advertising agency, and he was horrified to discover that he has a real talent for writing ad copy.  Thus he has thrown away his "good" job, and now he works at a used bookshop for practically nothing.  He resents having to work, he resents not having any money he resents the aspidistra* in his room....indeed, the list of things Gordon does not hate is quite short.  Gordon blames his misery and loneliness on his poverty and is quite vocal about it to his friends, which is one reason he doesn't have many.  Gordon is a pain in the neck.

Gordon does have a girlfriend who he hardly ever gets to see, Rosemary, who works at the ad agency and who loves him very much.  The amount she puts up with from him is astonishing, and indeed she only sticks around because she's a fictional character.  She doesn't want to sleep with Gordon yet, which he blames on his lack of money (of course).

When Gordon finally does get some money paid to him for a poem, it ends in disaster.  He gets extremely drunk, is awful to everybody, and ends up in jail.  He loses his job, and finally gets what he wants -- to sink down into a life so low and ill-paid that he is just about really poor.  (Large chunks of this are familiar from Down and Out in Paris and London.)  Nevertheless, even though he's living in filth and refuses even to try, Rosemary finally insists on sleeping with him.  The resulting baby produces a crisis: does Gordon give in, marry Rosemary, and sell his soul at the advertising agency, or does he let her go back to her family to raise the child alone?  In the end, he's relieved to surrender his principles, get furniture on the installment plan, and write ads about foot odor.  The aspidistra wins.

Where I'm fuzzy is whether Orwell despises Gordon for giving in and joining the consumer class, or whether he's pointing out that we all have to live and work and eat.  Maybe both at once.  Personally, I'm on Rosemary's side, and I kind of think Orwell is too.

The whole characterization of Rosemary and women in general is...something to think about.  Women on the whole are drawn as being practical and full of common sense -- even Gordon's self-sacrificing sister, Julia, has more sense than Gordon does.  But Orwell also puts in this jab at Rosemary where she says people of her class can't afford principles, even though she obviously has principles, just not idiotic ones like Gordon's.

Apparently this story was partly written after Orwell's actual time in a used bookstore, in what sounds like a pretty cushy set-up, where he and another guy shared a job, which left them each free for hours of writing and socializing, and the bookshop owners gave them a nice place to live, too.  Then he wrote this descriptive stuff as a sort of revenge on it?  Which seems less than gracious.

There's a movie of the novel, A Merry War, from 1997, with Helena Bonham Carter as Rosemary.  I remember enjoying it some years ago, but the whole tone of the film is much more cheerful than the book is.  Indeed, I don't suppose you could get anybody to watch it otherwise.

I still like this book, still don't quite know why, but it was fun to read it again.

For Americans, an aspidistra is a houseplant popular with the Victorians because it is practically impossible to kill.  Be your bedsit never so dingy and smoky, the aspidistra will survive.  So it's kind of a symbol of determined respectability.