Posts Tagged ‘death’

Once on a Time (A. A. Milne)

This is a fantasy book written for adults (now probably considered YA). Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inappropriate for children here, merely that they are not the primary audience. There are people who are bad and unhappy because they are miscast, and Milne makes sure we understand that – a good leader can be an underhanded, manipulative follower, and a good swineherd can make a careless, aggressive king. The difficulty in life is to figure out what people’s strengths are, what they are truly well-suited to, and then putting them in those roles. I’m seeing a lot of that in my management class, but it’s true here as well. Magic kingdoms that are somehow excessively small, transformations, foolish men, women who don’t actually need help – it’s a great book.

The Biology of Luck (Jacob M. Appel)

I read this book in unhappy circumstances, sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, but I don’t think I’d care much for it in the best of contexts. Protagonist writes a book for the woman he loves, recounting the day that he finally gets the courage to ask her to marry him but from her perspective, and then he waits for the day he has the letter from the publisher either accepting or rejecting it to ask the big question. So, we see the day from his side, as he gets his letter and tries to hang onto it during the course of his day as a tour guide. We also read the book he wrote, telling the day from her side, but the two stories keep intertwining, so Protagonist predicted the day accurately, with its deaths and disasters and everything. A better writer would take a little time to speculate on the nature of reality, whether Protagonist is trapped in his own story or whether he is influencing future events in which he is not involved, whether free will exists or we are all pawns in some cosmological plan that he got an accidental glimpse of, but Appel ignores it all. There is no meditation on the fabric of events because Protagonist is completely obsessed with this girl Starshine. She doesn’t think of him at all. He fills the same role in her life as the gay best friend, only without being gay. I’m really confused as to why he would portray the woman he loves as a manipulative bitch, but he does. The common folk would call her a cocktease – she holds the possibility of sex in front of men in order to get them to do what she wants, but she prefers not to actually let them touch her. The boyfriend she meets for lunch is fabulously wealthy and wants to take her away to Europe; the boyfriend she meets after lunch is fabulously sexy and wants to take her away to Europe as well. The first one is young and entitled, the second is older, muscular, and revolutionary. Sleeping with two men is enough; she doesn’t need more sex in her life, but she still presents herself as available to other men so they will donate to the nonprofit she works for or do whatever else she wants. Why does protagonist love her? He digs all into her psyche, but I can’t find anything there to justify his feelings for her.

This book is another example of how New Yorkers think that a book is good, interesting, and important simply because it is set in New York. There’s nothing else to recommend it.

The Witching Hour (Anne Rice)

I first picked this book up in the staff room at my workplace ten years ago. I read through the first chapter, and I knew that this book could completely take me over, so I put it down and decided to leave it alone. Until now. There’s something about Anne Rice’s writing that feels real; it didn’t feel like reading fiction at all. It was a complete experience for me. Which is good, because at over a thousand pages, it took me nearly three weeks to get through it.

This is really two books. Nestled in the center is an epistolary multigenerational Gothic novel, along the order of Daphne du Maurier, about a family of witches. In seventeenth-century Scotland, a girl named Suzanne was a local healer. She slept with a witch hunter who told her all sorts of stories about witches are supposed to be able to do, so she went outside and called forth a spirit who whipped up a storm. She named him Lasher. He guides, protects, and supports her descendants for the next three hundred years. Lasher picks up various tricks from them over the years. The witch gene doesn’t stick with only female children, though, so he gets the idea to breed them for magical talent the way a puppy mill inbreeds for floppy ears and gentle dispositions. There’s some gay content here, but since the gay men in the family also tend to fuck their sisters/aunts/daughters/mothers/nieces, it’s not as gay-positive as I’d prefer. The Talamasca is a group of scholars who try to learn about the paranormal and protect the Mayfairs from their own witchcraft. They provide some genetic material for the line as well.

The frame story, the second longer book, is about the newest witch, Rowan Mayfair. She’s a neurosurgeon sworn never to see the family in New Orleans, who rescues a hot drowning guy and falls for him. He’s a poor Irish from New Orleans as well, so just her type. He gets some psychic powers after his near-death experience, as well as a driving mission to help the Mayfair witches. Not the ones living now, all the dead ones. Lasher’s in on it too, glad to have finally found a Mayfair who understands enough about anatomy to give him corporeal form. I’ll admit that my attention started to flag sometime around page 850, but I pushed through and things got intense there at the end. It’s a good book, just very long. The other two books in the trilogy are of a reasonable length.

The Consumption of Magic (T. J. Klune)

This is the third in the series about the magically bitchy twinks who gather dragons to put down the Rising of the Darks. When we finished A Destiny of Dragons, Sam hadn’t quite forgiven his mentors for concealing some details from him, but he gets over it here. Things are getting too dangerous for him to pass up allies, and this is a book about reconciliation. Even Gary and Kevin get back together, and we’re all glad we don’t really have to imagine what unicorn-dragon sex looks like. Knight Delicious Face is still dashing and immaculate, though once Sam starts telling his own secrets things change a little. Prince Justin is a bit less of an asshole than he has been, so maybe Sam’s charisma is winning him over at last. As ever, Klune’s writing is a joy and a delight, and if I knew him I would be begging for a beef injection. I love this series so much. This isn’t the end, and this installment finishes on an Empire Strikes Back sort of a note.

 

I know that I usually discuss books in the month that I read them, but it’s the afternoon of March 2 and I’ve already finished two more, so I’m going to go ahead and discuss these as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)

I’ve heard people say that this series takes a dark turn in the fourth book, that the death of Cedric Diggory changes the series in less pleasant ways. I’d disagree – things get really dark here in Book Two. I know the movie makes him look like a Pixar chihuahua, but Dobby the Self-Harming House-Elf is really disturbing. Far from being the friendly sidekick, he’s one of the primary antagonists, despite the way he gives himself severe burns and bludgeoning trauma. It’s a miracle he hasn’t had any amputations. Then two fourteen-year-olds steal a car, only to have two twelve-year-olds steal the same car a few chapters on. Fortunately for it, the car goes feral and hides in the Forbidden Forest. Then there’s the giant spider, and the even gianter snake who kills on sight. Hagrid continues to be incredibly irresponsible with the children, even though it’s strongly implied that he’s sixty-three, so I feel like he should be more mature than he is. How long do half-giants live? How long does it take them to grow up? There’s also a great deal of cynicism in relation to celebrity culture and government authority, which will persist throughout the series. Bring on the darkness.

Prater Violet (Christopher Isherwood)

I read this book in about twelve hours, and most of those I was asleep. It’s the fictionalized account of Isherwood’s involvement on a motion picture in 1933 and 1934. The book focuses on his relationship with the Austrian director. There’s a lot of talk about politics, Hitler, and preparing for war – writing in 1945, Isherwood knew where things were going so he makes a big deal out of it, but the character Isherwood doesn’t know that World War II is just around the corner and just tries to keep the peace. The real meat of the book, for me, is in the last ten pages, where Isherwood starts thinking about what the experience means. What are we living for? In the midst of a worldwide economic and psychological depression, why do we bother to keep ourselves alive? It’s an expensive business, stuffing food and water in your mouth so that the cells keep replicating. It’s an interesting and intense burst at the end of the book. It got me thinking – he talks about how he takes lovers to hide from his fear and depression and hopes that eventually he will reach a point where he doesn’t need a man’s body to distract him from his terror and despair. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing. Why am I still with this guy? And if I do shake him off, how long will I stay single? Am I into relationships for the sex, or am I using men to avoid facing who I am and how I feel? Am I so in love with being alive that I really think it’s better than the alternative? Haven’t I always wanted the sort of adventure you never come back from? How aware am I of what’s going on in Venezuela, and to what degree does that make me complicit? Maybe I am just a stupid American, using more resources than an entire village, taking up more space than anyone has a right to, foolishly optimistic about the future and so not working to stop war or climate change. I’m hearing the girl from The Last Five Years, singing “I suck! I suck I suck I suck!”

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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

A little girl starts to taste people’s emotions in the food they make. She is exposed to a lot of adult emotion at a young age, particularly her mother’s depression. I was really interested in reading a kid trying to describe what anxiety tastes like. It’s a hard childhood, particularly with her brother melting into the furniture, but she seems to become a functioning adult with a strong sense of self-care. I liked this one a lot – a model for growing up to be healthy even with a childhood full of trauma.

The Long Walk (Stephen King)

This one was hard to read. At one point, a character feels like he’s in a Shirley Jackson story, and there are some parallels to make with “The Lottery.” Teenage dystopias have become quite popular, though, so I’d be more likely to connect it with The Hunger Games. Every year, one hundred teenage boys are selected to walk through Maine. If they stop moving, they get killed. There is, of course, one winner. I wonder if any of the winners survive; it is not good for the health to walk continuously for four or five days, especially not with Maine weather. It works as a sort-of allegory for the human condition and our walk through life, with the relentless grind of daily activity and a not-really-benevolent Major watching over you, ready to reward you if you win. The outlook is intensely bleak, as Ray Garraty makes friends and watches them all die. The only way this makes sense is as a form of population control, but really, there are more efficient and private ways of getting rid of ninety-nine teenagers. That’s not quite two per state per year; I’m sure more die from influenza or leukemia. A sad, sad book that grinds you down.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling)

Note the title – this is the original text, before it was Americanized as The Sorcerer’s Stone. The publishers thought that American kids wouldn’t know what the philosopher’s stone was, or maybe that they wouldn’t be able to pronounce philosopher. I think that changing it was insulting to the kids and dumb of the publishers, because it’s not like sorcerer is any clearer.

I think the plot is fairly familiar by now – Act I, emotionally abused child discovers he’s a wizard and prepares to go to a magical school; Act II, he makes friends with this year’s Weasley and gets through Christmas; Act III, he makes friends with Hermione and the three of them stop the most evil wizard ever from granting himself eternal life, just in time for summer break.

People talk about how revolutionary this story was, for a lot of different reasons, but I find revolutionary the treatment of Harry. He is essentially a dumb jock (excuse me, an athlete of moderate academic ability), which usually means he’d be the villain of the piece. Instead, Rowling puts him at the center – the protagonist of a book aimed at children is a child who doesn’t read for fun, which was really rare when I was a kid.

There are details that I didn’t notice when this was the only book I had read in the series – Bathilda Bagshot has been writing Harry’s textbooks since Year One, and he goes to visit her in Godric’s Hollow in Book Seven. Sirius Black is an important character in books three through five, but here he’s just that guy who lent Hagrid a flying motorcycle to bring Harry Potter to the Dursleys. I’m impressed with the way Rowling plants seeds for herself, in this book that was written before the others were conceived, and then she waters those seeds and they become fully realized characters and change the course of the series. I know that I’m going to forget the centaurs again – so many of the minor characters blur into the background for me – but maybe I’ll remember better this time. Even if I don’t, I know that I’ll enjoy continuing to read this story.

Raving Fans (Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles)

I hated this book so much. This is an essay on customer relations that could fit into fifteen pages at the most, but Blanchard dresses it up in the guise of poorly written fiction with an angelic fairy godmother (male) obsessed with golf and an unnamed protagonist called simply the Area Manager who seems most competent at avoiding work so he can spend time shopping and hanging out with his imaginary friend. There are some good points to be made, but if the TLDR version can be put on a one-page handout, I’d rather have the handout. Instead, my professor made me read a 130-page narrative that tries to be an allegory but doesn’t understand how.

Night Shift (Charlaine Harris)

I love Charlaine Harris. I really appreciate her portrayal of life in the South – her books seem natural, as if the characters live just down the street. This is the last of the Midnight, Texas books, and its storyline is covered in Season One of the television series. Fiji is back to her central role, and she’s great. She spends the book with her body image issues in the front of her mind, as a demon bent on taking her spreads death throughout the town. She’s a virgin, which supposedly makes her an incredibly powerful witch, and I have a hard time with the idea of sex weakening a woman’s power, but the townies hold a ritual where she loses her virginity with someone who isn’t a demon and drives the evil back to hell. When they decide on this, just about every guy in town offers himself. Several of them are genuinely excited about her, and even the two gay guys would consider it an honor. The only ones who don’t volunteer are the town priest and that one guy who’s married. In the end, it’s the guy she’s always loved who gets to fuck her in the town square while everyone else watches. The town secrets are all out, at least to the reader, and there are no plot hooks for a sequel. It’s a book with closure, which is another thing I admire. I had a writing instructor in undergrad who said that it takes talent to know where to begin, but I think it takes just as much talent for a writer of popular genre fiction to know where to end. These series tend to go on forever.

The World and Other Places (Jeanette Winterson)

This would be a fantastic introduction to Winterson for someone who isn’t familiar with her work. It hits all the right themes without taking the time for much other than theme, except maybe character. The writing is beautiful, as ever, but there isn’t time for a lot of world-building in a short story collection. I think that I’d read “The Three Friends” in one of the earlier novels, but I can’t say for sure. Love. Loss. Imagination. Dogs. Gender. Lesbians and other women. Winterson’s writing always makes me feel full, nourished, alive (while insisting that nothing alive is simple). Her books are always worth reading.

Sunshine (Robin McKinley)

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a vampire novel, but instead of focusing on where vampires come from or how they die, it focuses on the fact that they are upsetting and terrifying. For me, the strongest element of the book is the examination of how we deal with trauma. Yes, there’s a little bit of sexy vampire stuff, but there’s only one good one and all the rest are represented as serial killers, which they are by necessity. I also like the fact that the old one isn’t physically stronger than everyone else, only mentally. I’ve never understood why, for vampires, age equals physical prowess.

I also appreciate the way that the protagonist has lived so long in a post-Voodoo Wars America that she doesn’t start by explaining all the differences. Things seem normal at first, then there’s mention of a bad spot, and it’s only gradually that you figure out that magic is real and security is a big business.

 

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

People have been going on about this book for a while, so I finally succumbed. What a disappointment.

Mitchell’s writing is still good, and he’s still doing multiple narrators and multiple time periods and the transmigration of souls, but the outlook has become so incredibly bleak. By ending Cloud Atlas in the nineteenth century, he found a way to leave us with a feeling of hope and opportunity, but here there is nothing but People suck and then we destroy the earth and the lucky ones die. Holly Sykes, protagonist, does not suck, but she’s surrounded by really horrible people, and even though all the other narrators are kind of in love with her, it’s not really a book about love. It’s more about death and the realization that some people would become serial killers for the sake of retaining their youth. According to the interview in the back of the book, that includes the author (if he thought it would actually work).

Fun thing that you miss if you read the e-book: There’s a circle with a radius line in the header. The radius travels around the circle to make it look like a clock. The parts are roughly equal in length, but in the first part the radius travels around the clock once, in part two it goes around twice, until in part six it is moving at breakneck speed, giving the reader the sensation that time is moving faster and faster.

This might be a horrible thing to say, but by the time I got to the climax of the book I was really bored with it. Brubeck’s section about reporting on the Iraq War was emotionally difficult for me, followed by Crispin the morally repugnant author, so by the time I got to the Horologist I was really done with writers, writing, and this book. Again, it’s not the style that bothered me; it’s the content. I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas, but the other books I’ve read of his have just not lived up to that one.

 

A Destiny of Dragons (T. J. Klune)

Sequel to The Lightning-Struck Heart. Sam of Wilds is given the task to unite the five dragons and save the kingdom from an evil wizard so powerful even Randall doesn’t like to talk about him. A good bit of the book deals with Sam figuring out how to cope with prophecy and fate, asserting his right to freedom of choice. In the second part, he goes up against a scary dragon again, only to discover (again) that the dragon is a basically good person who’s been socially conditioned to respond aggressively. This dragon is an emo teenaged snake monster, so he doesn’t join the crew permanently, but he’ll be available to Sam when he needs him.

Sam now has Kevin (from the first book) and Dark (from the second book), so I’m imagining the rest of the series as continued quests to find dragons and convince them to join Team Sam. Sam also spends a good bit of the book trying to come to terms with the fact that the man he loves as a twenty-year-old will not be his for his entire life. Wizards live for hundreds of years and age slowly, so even if Ryan Foxheart survives being a knight for the length of a normal human life span, he’s still going to die an old man while Sam looks young and cute and lives forever. It’s sad, but it’s also realistic, understanding that your first relationship isn’t going to last forever. Poor Sam, but we all go through this at some point.

All the things I loved about the first book I love about the second one as well. I needed something to relax with after the Mitchell, and this was just right.

 

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

I love this book so much. It’s about a competition between two magic teachers – they each train a student, then bind them together in a magical fight to the death. Of course the two fall in love. The first time I saw that much, but this time I saw just how important everyone else is, the clockmaker, the contortionist who survived the last challenge, the fortuneteller who uses Temperance to keep them balanced, the teenager who teaches the magician about stories, the woman who sees behind the scenes and runs mad, the boy who falls in love with the circus and saves it. Of course I love the circus as well, all the magical tents that don’t seem to match what I remember of circuses – The Wishing Tree, The Pool of Tears, The Ice Garden… It’s beautiful and emotional, and not at all outsized or self-conscious the way I picture circuses. I want Morgenstern to write more books.

 

The Poisoned Island (Lloyd Shepherd)

This book starts with a rape, and rubs the symbolism in as it continues to tell the story of English botanists raiding Tahiti. It’s marketed as literary fiction, but don’t be fooled: this is a dark Regency-era murder mystery with a strong social-justice message. It’s also the second in a series, which didn’t become clear until I got curious about all the references to the characters’ shared history and checked Amazon, and sure enough, the major characters are mentioned by name in the description of Shepherd’s previous novel, The English Monster. So read them in order. I’m not saying it’s poorly written, because I think it’s a good book – I use ‘literary fiction’ as a genre rather than as a description of quality. But seriously, the body count gets up to nine or ten, and the protagonist takes a really paternalistic attitude toward his wife, who seems like a brilliant scientist if men would stop hampering her activities.

 

The Earthsea Trilogy (Ursula K. Le Guin)

I thought this would be a good way to slow down the way I’m burning through my book collection, reading a three-in-one, but it didn’t work. It went so fast. Three titles: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. In some form, all three books are about the human conflict with death. Le Guin points out that death is to be respected, but not sought after, not worshipped, not feared. The protagonist of the first one turns into a guide in the other two, but while it makes sense, it’s a little sad – the first book makes it clear that he has dark skin, as do most of the people in Earthsea, but the next two books have white protagonists, and Ged becomes another magical Negro spirit guide. There are important things here about who we are and what it means to be human, but the racial stuff did make me sad. There are more books now, so maybe the people of color come back to the center in Tehanu, but I don’t know yet.

 

The Lightning-Struck Heart (T. J. Klune)

I loved this book so much. Again, it’s sort of thick so it should have taken me a while, but I went through it so fast and loved it all. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that bitchy twinks who make sex jokes in a fantasy landscape can be hilarious. Fantasy/gay rom-com, completely genre-appropriate. Sam is a wizard’s apprentice whose best friends are an angry glittery unicorn and a half-giant. He’s in love with Knight Delicious Face, engaged to Prince Justin – the prince gets kidnapped by a sexually aggressive dragon who has been deified by a local town with mind-control corn, so the baby wizard and the knight go on a quest. I am super excited about the fact that there are three more that I can put on my list.

 

Oh, and by the way, today is my seven-year anniversary on WordPress. You’ve come a long way, Angry Ricky, but you’re still yourself, even though you thought you might lose yourself along the way.

As much as I do love me some du Maurier, I understand why this is one of the less frequently mentioned. It’s a multigenerational novel like The Loving Spirit, but it doesn’t have the clean-cut feel, where the person whose name and date range is the title of the section doesn’t always die at the end. There isn’t someone who lives through all the eras of the book, either, so it doesn’t feel as tightly focused as the earlier book. She’s also not setting most of the novel in Cornwall, and there’s something missing when someone isn’t writing about the thing she loves. England and Ireland have had a troubled history, and I honor the courage it takes to tackle that in a work of fiction, especially the courage to see things from the side of the colonizer rather than the more fashionable colonized.

COPPER JOHN, 1820-1828

John Brodrick owns a considerable property in Ireland. Now, remember your history before 1820. Vikings were taking Irish slaves back in the Middle Ages, and they took around half of England and mixed into the local populace. So, remember that the Irish are Celtic while the English are a weird mix of Celt with Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, and whomever else came stomping onto the cliffs of Dover. In the seventeenth century, there was all that unpleasantness with King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, but there was also a great deal of unpleasantness between Cromwell and the Irish, which resulted in English nobles taking control over the Irish land, in a style that was already a throwback to feudalism. The Irish have been unhappy about this ever since it happened, and many of them are still unhappy about sharing their island with the United Kingdom.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, Brodrick’s grandfather bought their estate from the Donovans because they couldn’t afford to keep it. The Donovans have never lost their idea that the land is theirs, even though everything about the sale seems to have been legal and at least partially initiated by their side. They hated Brodrick for buying their land, I assume because he had the money for it and they didn’t. Later one of the Donovans shoots Grandfather Brodrick in the back. The sale and murder create a dynastic feud between the two families.

The current Brodrick has the idea to mine for copper on Hungry Hill, which is a symbol for Ireland itself. His older son Henry is on board, but the younger, John, is against it, in the manner of a younger son whose opinion is never consulted and whose pursuits are never respected. John loves Hungry Hill, and his mostly unvoiced opinions lean toward environmentalism and conservation of natural habitats, though those phrases are anachronistic for a Regency character. He’s a real businessman, this eldest John Brodrick, and he seems to care for little apart from his mines. He puts in a lot of work to make an agreement with the guy who owns the other side of the hill, but he is eventually successful. He hires a bunch of Cornish miners to emigrate and start the work, and also to train the Irish workforce who will eventually replace them. He has so much zeal for the mine and everything connected to it that he is called Copper John, a convenient nickname to differentiate him from his son.

Watch how the colonialism works. The copper comes up in Ireland, but they don’t have the technology to transform the raw materials into a usable resource, so the copper has to be taken across the water to be processed and sold. Copper John needs to keep an eye on both the mines and the factories, so when he can afford to, he buys an estate (or two) near the refineries and lives part of the time in Ireland and part in England. His daughters prefer living in England, so as a family the attention is directed away from Clonmere Castle toward the English estates, which means that they are using the money from their Irish mine to support the English economy instead of buying Irish goods and services. The Irish fight back by stealing the copper, breaking the machinery, and doing poor work, so Copper John has to take a closer hand in it. By which I mean explosives and murder.

Copper John has five children, and two of them die in connection with the mine. It’s like an exchange, John’s payment for all his wealth. It’s a shame, because these were the two children that everyone liked.

GREYHOUND JOHN, 1828-1837

John has a sense of perpetual insecurity. He knows that his father would have preferred Henry, but he often wonders whether his love Fanny-Rosa would also have preferred the older brother. He loves his dogs, and racing is the thing he really cares about. It would be easy to frame this as a discussion about gambling, but du Maurier doesn’t pursue that angle. It’s an expression of his love for nature and his ability to make a scant living by caring for a natural, renewable resource instead of making a fortune by destroying the natural beauty and going through nonrenewable resources as quickly as possible. John loves his dogs, and when they and he are too old and fat to keep racing, there’s a contented early retirement for them all.

That Fanny-Rosa is a real piece of work.

A louder splash than usual caught his ear – there must be some big trout in the lake, after all – and he climbed over a boulder to have a sight of the fish, and oh, God! it was no fish jumping at all, but Fanny-Rosa, naked, with her hair falling on her shoulders, wading out into the lake, throwing the water aside with her hands.

She turned and saw him, and instead of shrieking in distress and shame, as his sisters would have done, she looked up at him, and smiled, and said, “Why do you not come in too? It is cool and lovely.”

It takes a few years before John will be ready for that, but they do get married and have a baby seven months later (full term). Fanny-Rosa has an un-self-conscious joy of life that the Brodricks lack, they being weighed down by the responsibilities of money and respectability.

 

So. The generational pattern here is a pair of brothers named John and Henry. Henry is blond and popular, and John is dark and brooding and isolated. They both love the same girl, but Henry doesn’t figure it out because he’s kind of clueless and John is tortured and so, so dark, but not in a sexy way. Greyhound John has five kids, and Wild Johnnie is just that, until he drinks himself to death because he’ll never be with Henry’s wife, who is truly awesome. Of course, Henry’s son Hal combines both John and Henry traits, and he witnesses the collapses of the mines. There’s an epilogue from the 1920s, where we see the Donovans finally regaining power over the land while Clonmere Castle is a decrepit ruin.

This book is a representation of why colonialism is awful for the colonizers. You put all this effort in, but eventually it just drifts into a muddy jumble of disappointment and depression. Even Fanny-Rosa devolves into a gambling addict dying in a mental institution in the south of France. Everyone dies, everything ends, so it’s better to treat people with respect instead of the way the British have treated the Irish for nearly all of recorded history.

Hungry Hill is an important document for the history of colonialism, especially white-on-white, but despite du Maurier’s gifts with prose, it’s not delightful. The 1940s were a tough time, what with moving directly from the Great Depression to World War II and all, and it seems that she was having a hard time finding happy things to write about. There’s beauty, but even though I find joy in the midst of the depression and anxiety, there’s not much in du Maurier’s book. Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I mean, I finished this book more than a month ago, I think.

This novel was originally published in 1980, and the quotes on the cover are all about how Graham Swift is the literary novelist of the decade. And to some extent, they’re right. His book fits all the conventions for the literary novel of his time. It felt like something I’d read before, even though I’ve never read anything of his before, because there’s nothing to mark it as different or distinctive. It’s the same literary novel that people have been writing since the mid-1970s.

We meet Willy Chapman on the last day of his life. He knows that it is, and there are almost constant references to this fact, even though it’s never explicitly stated. Because it’s his last day, he tries to make it both completely normal and a form of leave-taking, so of course he fails. People catch on to the fact that something’s weird, but they don’t know what.

But of course this isn’t the real story. The real story is his life, told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes in order, sometimes not.

Past the winning post, round the first bend, the shadows on the grass swivelling round mockingly in front of them. Barely half the race run, but already – you can sense it – they are getting lost in their struggles. A grimness setting in. They don’t notice the wails of the crowd or the encouragement of the figures clustered round the winning post and the judge’s desk – sports masters, house monitors in blazers and flannels, Mr Hill, bending over the track, waving what seems a threatening fist as they approach; the clock-tower, the spire. Don’t they see, the secret is not to think of the race? But they notice only the endless dark circuit of the track. A grimness. The crowd senses it. The cheering changes tone. They like a battle.

This is written close to the end, but it’s from one of the earlier scenes. Chapman was a high-school track star in 1931, where he realized that for most people life becomes a constant struggle, a battle that never ends. Until it does. People like that; they enjoy watching the fight. But that’s not what Chapman lives for. He wins the race by thinking of the encouragement, or the crowd, or anything but the struggle, the difficulty of filling lungs while moving too fast for the air to be drawn in naturally, the ache of tiring muscles, and the inevitable slowing. Chapman hangs back until the last lap, then races past for the win. His primary opponent, Jack Harrison, pushes himself to be faster than everyone else, and finally comes in second.

Irene Harrison is a reasonably nice girl from a wealthy family. They run a chain of laundries, I think all in London. Her parents pick a suitor from a similarly ‘good’ family with a ‘good’ future, so of course he date-rapes her. They insist she go out with him again, and he does it again. The family had drummed her head full of all this nonsense about feminine purity, so premarital sex kind of destroys her. She ends up going to a mental institution for a few weeks, but that only keeps her from acting out. It doesn’t heal anything.

Literature from this time seems to require a rape, or an abortion (either unwanted and forced or wanted and denied), or both. It’s like the fiction of the twentieth century is fueled by trauma inflicted on women. Thinking about it this morning, it’s like the last century went along steadily denying people the comfort of traditional gender definitions. The wars became so obscene that men doubted their masculinity simply because they refused to lose their humanity. I hate the fact that masculinity is so often defined by violence – not only because it destabilizes the gender identity of men who like peace, but mainly because it leads men to perform acts of violence simply to understand who they are. Defining masculinity through violence means that every man needs a victim, usually a woman or a child. Drawing our attention to toxic masculinity is important, but it’s most helpful to pair it with the nontoxic variety. Pointing out toxic masculinity without providing an alternative expression of male gender identity has the tendency to normalize the unhealthy attitudes. “Don’t rape women” is a fantastic rule, but we also need “Do treat women with respect, as you would any other equal.” Provide Do’s for all the Don’t’s to avoid creating a behavior vacuum, that people will then fill with other forms of bad behavior.

Chapman is sort of like the good example – the rapist and the girl’s brothers treat him like a patsy, just like in all those eighteenth-century novels where the cast-off mistress is married to a sidekick or lesser hero. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with marrying a girl whose hymen is already broken, or even understand why everyone is laughing behind their hands at him. She’s pretty, he likes her, she tolerates him, so what else matters?

Throughout the book, they talk about their deal. Irene is marrying Willy because she thinks he’s the only one who will have her. He’s not her equal, either socially or intellectually. Handsome, athletic, and malleable, yes. Willy is marrying her because she’s amazing: beautiful, rich, smart. They never talk about their deal, but it runs something like this. Irene can offer Willy everything he wants except love, so he won’t bother her with that. They’ll go through the forms of marriage without ever offering or eliciting the word Love.

When they marry, he’s a lower employee in a printer’s office. His hands are almost permanently dyed black with newsprint. She buys him a newsstand so that he can own his own business, though he leans more toward offering the candy and marketing to children than focusing on the papers. Eventually he also starts selling toys, and expands to a second location. Professionally, Willy Chapman is very successful. Unfortunately, before he opens for the first time, as he’s hanging the new sign, he falls off the ladder and breaks his leg. Due to the state of medicine in 1938, this is a life-changing accident. Now, a man in his 20s can break a leg and heal without it materially affecting his movements a year later. Chapman gets a permanent limp. You could read the runner’s sudden inability even to walk comfortably as a castration, but again, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Or at least, his feelings aren’t important enough to dwell on.

There’s a lot of talk about World War II, but they get through it without too much trouble. He works in the quartermaster’s, and she goes to live in the country for a while, but then comes back and gets a job (pointedly not working for her father). It seems to be a theme in the British literature around World War II – just keep buggering on. Irene’s brother, the runner, dies, but she’s not that sorry to have one fewer family member to boss her around, disrespect her husband, and gaslight her.

Then there’s Dorothy. Part of the deal, what Willy and Irene give to each other, is a child. Just one. He loves children, but he’s working all the time, so Dorry is really Irene’s daughter, imbued with all of her mother’s values and faults. She’s the classic baby-boomer, as seen in the early 1970s – entitled, rude, rebellious, ungrateful. So, sort of how the baby-boomers see the millennials. Takes one to know one, I guess. Swift himself was born the same year as his character, so I want to see him identifying with her, but I never found her all that sympathetic. He seems to be celebrating his parents’ generation and partially condemning his own.

I’m tempted to discuss the differences in values in terms of gender, but it is probably more accurate to frame the discussion around class. Willy Chapman has little in common with the family he marries into, and we see it most clearly in his interactions with his wife and daughter. He’s from a working class background, and pushed his way to the lower middle before marrying a girl from the upper middle. This being the twentieth century, there are no titles, but the Harrisons are definitely gentry while Chapman would normally be permitted to shine their shoes for a nickel if he washed his hands first. Remembering the emphasis on feminine purity, Irene inherited a great deal of money from her mother, who got it when her brothers died. It’s sort of like the payment she receives for holding herself together and marrying someone the family can tolerate. She’s being paid for not going too far off the rails – or in other words, for letting her rapist get away with it, for staying silent and accepting injustice. She invests some of the money in dish sets, china that will keep its value (she insists). When she dies, it seems logical that the fifteen thousand pounds should go straight to Dorothy, but the new generation isn’t into purity. She’s been living with a fellow student without marrying him, and the sense of social outrage is too much. No inheritance from her dead mother. She’s furious, of course, and comes around to take the china, which makes Chapman very sad. He hates the idea that his daughter is so obsessed with the money – he’s not seeing it as a symbol of familial acceptance, an acknowledgment of worth. Eventually he does write her the check (it’s not like anyone else in her family is still around to care), even though he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to her. She’s going to inherit when he dies anyway, but I think he wanted her to know that he’s giving it to her of his own free will, not as a default.

Contrast that with Chapman’s work, selling newspapers and candy.

Memorials. They don’t matter. They don’t belong to us. They are only things we leave behind so we can vanish safely. Disguises to set us free. That’s why I built my own memorial so compliantly – the one she allotted me, down there in the High Street. A memorial of trifles, useless things.

Newspapers are, by their very nature, disposable. I’m always sad when I hear of people who hoard the papers, because they lose their value very quickly. I don’t mean their financial value, I mean their use value. What good is last year’s newspaper? If you buy them daily, what use is it to keep one from last month? I’ve heard that one of my father’s sisters (he has two, I’ve never met either) is one of these, and it’s sad. The trajectory of my life has been away from physical possessions, toward finding my sense of permanency within myself. Wandering through a house with floor-to-ceiling stacks of newsprint is not how I want to pass my old age, nor how I think anyone should. For the Harrisons, the newsstand is kind of a Fuck you, you don’t deserve anything permanent; for Chapman, it’s also kind of a Fuck you, I’m devoting my life to the transient, disposable things of life, not your lasting value.

And none of it – that was the beauty of it – was either useful or permanent.

The irony is that in the end, they live on Chapman’s business and not his wife’s family or inheritance. The Harrisons wither and collapse while Willy’s business expands. He assumes that Dorothy will sell the business after he dies, but he’s really built something that the most mercenary of materialists would be proud to have, despite his celebration of the temporary.

The thing that really struck me about this book, aside from seeing a valorization of my own principles, is the way that the world shrinks. He’s in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but his world consists of his house, his shop, and the road he drives to get between them. It’s not even a very long road. There’s a lot more to the city than he ever sees; a lot more to England, a lot more to Planet Earth, but he tightens his gaze to a handful of buildings and a few short streets. Having traveled as much as I have, I don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend the type of fortitude and courage it takes to live according to the same routine in the same narrow orbit for thirty years. I haven’t been able to manage it for three. My life has taken me around a continent and onto three more, but Chapman’s life is circumscribed within a few miles. I’m not even sure I want to understand.

Is Graham Swift going to be studied in literature classes in fifty years as a preeminent British novelist of the late twentieth century? I don’t know. I’m inclined to say not, because there’s nothing really too experimental, nothing to grab the eye. Will I remember this book in six months? I’m not sure. Like Willy Chapman, the book itself is like a small pebble dropped in a large pond, that makes a ripple or two and then is lost. Within reach, but not important enough to retrieve.

 

During the course of his career, Forster published two collections of short stories, and then they were combined to form this volume. There were several other stories that he didn’t publish, and they came out posthumously as The Life to Come and Other Stories. The posthumous volume consists of stories that are overtly gay, and this one contains the stories that aren’t. In many of these stories, the gay content is still there, if you’re willing to look at it that way. I know I am.

My edition has no information about the writing of these stories, but if I remember the introduction to The Life to Come correctly, all of these were written before World War I, even though the second collection came out in 1928. If you’re accustomed to Howards End or A Room with a View, these stories are likely to strike you as strange. Many of them are allegorical fantasies, and while I love those, they don’t seem to be much in vogue at the moment. Critics pounced on Collateral Beauty, for example, because the personifications of Love, Time, and Death are portrayed differently than expected. I’ll admit that I had a hard time with Love the first time I saw it, but then you could argue that love doesn’t come easily to me in real life either. I idealize the concept based on the fictions I’ve read and watched, and then get upset when it doesn’t turn out the way I want. I guess that makes Keira Knightley better than I expect her to be.

THE STORY OF A PANIC

Of the supposedly not-gay stories, this one is probably the gayest. A conventional English family is on holiday in Italy, and during a picnic, everyone feels a rush of panic and runs from the scene, all but the teenage son. He feels a delicious languor and stays, but doesn’t talk about the experience. It seems like they’re running from a suddenly blossoming gayness, and he welcomes it. Their guide warns them to let him stay out at night so that he doesn’t die of unfulfilled longing, but of course they lock him up and he has to escape. His longing is for nature and privacy with a lovely Italian boy, so of course I see it as gay. It’s like he was touched by the god Pan, but it’s traditional society that starts to panic and constrain him. Life and health are to be found in the fulfilling of desire, while following societal conventions leads to illness and death.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE

Imagine life as a path we’re all walking down, bounded on both sides by thick hedges. We see the dusty road and the hedges look dying and wilted. Protagonist slips to the other side, and sees that reality is wider and more full of life than he had imagined. Of course the hedge is death and he discovers an atheist nature lover’s heaven, with grass and trees and streams. It’s nice.

THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS

Does this sound like Hawthorne? It should. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story called “The Celestial Railroad,” a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan, the pilgrim has to travel a long and difficult road full of temptations to reach the Celestial City, the allegorical heaven. Hawthorne’s story is about taking the train instead of walking – you skip all those distractions (temptation, suffering, exertion) and go straight to the gates of the City. However, the train doesn’t go through the gate; it turns sharply down and drags you to hell instead. Hawthorne wanted people to understand that you can’t skip over the hard things in life, and there’s no way to keep someone both sheltered and worthwhile. Truly decent people have enough experience of the world to have compassion for others and the ability to help them in their troubles, so you can’t become decent by shutting yourself up and reading your Bible all day long.

Forster’s omnibus doesn’t go to the Christian Heaven. The boy who rides the bus goes to the place where stories come from and live, so he meets Achilles and Tom Jones and all the other characters from the books he’s read. He tries to take his tutor there, but the older man insists that these stories should be kept separate and that these are good and those are not, so of course he suffers and can’t stay. The story is about leaving children free to find joy in literature where they can instead of telling them which books to appreciate and why. To some extent, this is why I wasn’t so great at teaching literature: I can’t always articulate why I love a book, or why students should. I don’t know how to communicate my own sense of beauty and wonder because I’m so frequently left speechless by them. It’s a bad idea to try to teach a book that leaves you without words. I also share the protagonist’s universal love of literature; I love all the wrong things.

OTHER KINGDOM

It’s a common enough story. A girl who is pretty and imaginative catches the eye of a man who is rich and conventional. He claims to value her for the wildness she brings into his life, but he immediately contains it and forces her into his own conventionality. It was never about valuing her sense of adventure; it was about taming her to prove his own power. It’s a sad story about a woman who wants a place of her own and the husband who ruins it for her.

THE CURATE’S FRIEND

I took myself in, and for a time I certainly took in Emily. I have never known a girl attend so carefully to my sermons, or laugh so heartily at my jokes. It is no wonder that I became engaged. She has made an excellent wife, freely correcting her husband’s absurdities, but allowing no one else to breathe a word against them; able to talk about the sub-conscious self in the drawing-room, and yet have an ear for the children crying in the nursery, or the plates breaking in the scullery. An excellent wife – better than I ever imagined. But she has not married me.

The curate meets a faun in the woods and gets blocked from the heterosexual marriage narrative. He took the girl and a neighbor boy on a picnic, and the faun (invisible to them) got the girl and boy together instead of helping the curate get the girl for himself. There’s a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in this. In the end, the curate realizes he’s happier without marriage, which has often been the conclusion of homosexuals who strike out with the opposite sex. As with the panic story above, proximity to nature and existence outside the marriage narrative seems to indicate there’s some gayness. Were I directing this as a play, the gayness would be more obvious, but a closeted first-person narrator isn’t going to slip up and reveal anything.

THE ROAD FROM COLONUS

This is the story I’ve seen anthologized the most, but I don’t see it as all that different from the others. I guess someone just picked this one (having an old man who changes might appeal to the old men who made the selections long ago) and then everyone else kept picking it because it was cheaper than asking the printer to set a different story.

Another conventional English family is traveling in Italy when their old man finds a spring of water bubbling up inside a dead tree. He stands inside the tree, in the spring, and feels a sudden restoration of youth and energy. He wants to stay, but his family insists he push on with them. They literally sneak up behind him, pick him up, and place him on the donkey when he tries to stay. With the best intentions, they ruin the end of his life. After they leave, there’s a natural disaster and the area is destroyed. Did nature throw a tantrum because he left, which he could have averted by staying? Did his children steal him from a happy death and force him into a miserable life? However you choose to interpret it, it seems that no one is free from the bonds of society – young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we’re all circumscribed by the people we live among. It seems so necessary to choose carefully whom we live among instead of accepting life’s default by living among our closest blood relations.

THE MACHINE STOPS

This begins the second group of stories, published in 1928. This also seems to be the story with the most scholarly work done on it. This is unusual for the collection because it’s high-concept science fiction, more H. G. Wells than D. H. Lawrence. It’s also very timely; people live in isolated, Matrix-like cells and communicate through the internet, constantly on a version of Facebook where they spend all day sharing their thoughts and watching videos. Forster makes them more like TED talks than like that one of the cat wearing a shark costume and riding a Roomba, but the concept is the same. The Machine feeds them and caters to their physical needs, except exercise and genuine human interaction. People are allowed to go outside, but they are discouraged from wanting to, and the guy who wants out eventually folds to peer pressure. Of course, what happens when the machine breaks down? They have to come up to the surface and try to live in the real world they’ve never seen. There are obvious ties to Huxley’s Brave New World.

THE POINT OF IT

The protagonist ends up in hell because he doesn’t understand the point of it. Forster’s Bloomsbury friends claimed that they didn’t get the point of it either. Scene 1: A sickly boy insists on rowing a boat across a difficult river, even though his companion is much more physically fit than he is. The effort kills him, but he dies happy. The friend doesn’t understand. Scene 2: The friend goes on to live a quietly ordinary life following the path of least resistance that his class privilege lays before him (also race and gender privilege), never making waves, always going along to get along. He never understands the point of doing otherwise. Scene 3: The friend is in hell, a bleak desert of prone figures. He eventually figures out that he can stand up, walk to a river, and cross it into heaven, but he first has to understand what the point of it is. It seems obvious to me, the point is that exertion is its own reward, that resistance is necessary to a life worth living, that we all need to see ourselves as heroes. The path society sets before us leads to complacency, tedium, bleakness, and hell. The Stonewall patrons weren’t trying to make history; they just got sick of being told they couldn’t choose their own identities. The point of it is to resist enslavement by society’s conventions, even if it kills you, because the alternative is a long, slow death and a longer, slower hell.

MR ANDREWS

Mr Andrews has died and is going on up to heaven. He meets a Turkish fellow who is doing the same. They find heaven to be exactly as their religions taught them to imagine it, but with enough space for them both to have the heaven they believe in. They both find it boring after a while, and decide to join the World Soul instead, which is a far more ecstatic experience than they could have dreamed. The forms of organized religion are so limiting, and can’t take us to ultimate happiness. For that, we have to let go of the forms and let reality take us where it wants us to go.

CO-ORDINATION

Protagonist is an unhappy music teacher. She has to teach pairs of girls the same duet all day long. It’s part of the school’s system of coordination, which means that everyone teaches the same topic in their different subjects. So, suppose this month the topic is Napoleon. The kids will read stories about the Wars in literature class, get the real history in their history class, see French armies in their word problems in math class, and study ballistics in science class. Some educators find it to be effective, but the forced conformity is here presented as stifling, and as with The Celestial Omnibus, Forster seems to advocate an educational system based on following the students’ interest, with the chief aim to provoke delight rather than correct test answers. Aesthetic sensibility triumphs over strict regulation, and if the teacher is released from her position, that’s really not such a bad thing.

THE STORY OF THE SIREN

As with many of the stories from the first half, we have a journey to Italy and a classical allusion. It starts with a young man losing his dissertation in the water (a similar thing happened in one of the stories from The Life to Come), and then he meets someone who tells him the story. You remember the sirens from the Odyssey; beautiful women who sing to men and lure them to their deaths. In this telling, you can only hear the song once, and if you’re prevented from following it, you spend your whole life wasting away from desire, likely to drown yourself to be able to hear it again. Being touched by magic unfits you for the life of society, and you have to plunge into nature like the boy who gets fucked by Pan in that Panic story. You don’t plunge, you die; you do plunge, you likely die anyway. Everyone dies; the question is, how? Do you live the life of daring and die reaching for a goal you can’t reach, or do you live a life of quiet desperation and die with the knowledge that your life was wasted? This seems the question the siren asks, as well as Forster, but people are obviously better off if the question never occurs to them. It’s easier to hate your life if everyone else does too; being called into a life of fulfillment is scary and could lead to death, but I think it might be better to taste fulfillment and die young than live to an old age and never feel complete or satisfied. Long and empty, or short and full? Realistically I know those aren’t our only options, but it’s hard to have a life you value if you don’t risk it every now and again.

THE ETERNAL MOMENT

An elderly author comes back to Italy, where she had fallen in love with the young local who inspired her first novel. They each followed the conventional paths society chose for them: she remaining single and virginal, he becoming vulgar and overweight. Athletes who let their figures go can be so disappointing.

For she realized that only now was she not in love with him: that the incident upon the mountain had been one of the great moments of her life – perhaps the greatest, certainly the most enduring: that she had drawn unacknowledged power and inspiration from it, just as trees draw vigour from a subterranean spring. Never again could she think of it as a half-humorous episode in her development. There was more reality in it than in all the years of success and varied achievement which had followed, and which it had rendered possible. For all her correct behaviour and lady-like display, she had been in love with Feo, and she had never loved so greatly again. A presumptuous boy had taken her to the gates of heaven; and, though she would not enter with him, the eternal remembrance of the vision had made life seem endurable and good.

Which is why it’s better to go ahead and enter the gates. A handsome man takes you off into nature and offers a pleasant, consensual experience, I say take it. I don’t regret the sex I’ve had, but I do regret the opportunities I let pass by.

I seriously loved this story collection. It’s weird and different and a little bit gay, and I think it’s great. As I said, not typical of the novels of his I’ve read, but I like them so much more. In a shorter form, he really hits the theme of resisting conventions because society strangles people faster and harder than in the novels. These are good stories, and should be read more often than they are.