The Ocean at the End of the Lane

     The book that all the WPF students were to read for June's Residency was Neil Gaiman's 1-grimace short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Since Gaiman is one of those authors I try to keep up with, I decided to get it, read it, and possibly use it to illustrate elements of my lectures.
     I'm glad I made that choice, because it proved useful for all three of the modules I taught in June. The book is "minor character, first person POV," and therefore gave me something other than John Watson and Sherlock Holmes to talk about when that came up.
     I'm happy to recommend reading this novel, but it does have a flaw, and that proved very helpful in teaching students about the structure and strategy of a novel. The problem arises because the narrator is not the protagonist of the novel, but for most of the first half, at least, of the book, the reader is trying to make him fit that role. He fits it badly, being young, clueless, and faced with unimaginable weirdness. He is not the hero of his own story, mostly, and that makes him irritating. I couldn't even tell what the story was "about" at the 60% mark, and I made a note to tell the students that Mr. Gaiman would not have sold this book if it were his first, because no-one would read far enough to find its real strengths. What you get most of the time is atmosphere, and hints of big stuff going on behind the scenes.
     This point was made for me when I taught a class of our second-year students the first afternoon after they had their sessions discussing the common reading. I asked them who the protagonist was. They didn't know, or named (I should say "tried to name," since the narrator isn't really named) the narrator. I'll give a spoiler, since it might help future readers: Lettie is the protagonist.
     So a roomful of journeyman writers, many of whom had finished reading the book, were unable to identify the protagonist. Which means they didn't know what the book was about, or who they were to be rooting for, or against. Yep, that's a problem.
     On page 170 there's a paragraph where the author tips his hand, and makes it clear that the narrator isn't the protagonist, and that the protagonist isn't a person. (Lettie is a god, to be blunt. She's does the work, she pays the price.)
     So, this is the kind of book you can get away with if you've earned the readers' trust. I might have stalled in the middle, even though the book is short, were Gaiman not one of my favorite authors. And it paid off in a story that I admire, and that sticks with me.
     For those in the trade, there's a kind of writer's joke in the premise of the book. Instead of a "Save the Cat" moment at the beginning, it's a "Kill the Cat" event instead. Killing the cat turns out to be a really, really bad thing.

Stranger Still

     It seems they're having Martian trouble in Lincoln, Nebraska. At least that's the impression one takes from Laura Madeline Wiseman's chapbook Stranger Still, from Finishing Line Press.
     Pittsburghers will be glad to know that there is, of course, a reference to Mars, PA. There are all sorts of references, because the magic of this chapbook is that Wiseman doesn't settle for just one metaphor. She explores quite a variety of meanings for the Martians. They are the Other, they are Us, they are freedom, they are bondage; and they are a threat to dust ruffles everywhere.
     My particular favorites were "Historical Study" (when the cranes sing, we know what they are singing) and "Why Not to Buy Martians Sundaes Topped with Cherries." Another touching one is "Misnomer" which undermines the whole concept of the chapbook, actually. "First Contact" puts a nice twist on Halloween.
This is one case where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. I had already seen a couple of these poems in print, by themselves, elsewhere. They did not have as much impact as they do in the collection, because the different takes on the same apparent theme give a richness to the idea that isn't visible in the individual poems.
     I'll be using this collection as a classroom illustration.

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

    The 31st book of my reading year is 31 years old. Stephen Jay Gould's collection of reflections on Natural History, entitled Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes bears up very well, despite its age.
     As always, when his name comes up, I will say that I miss Stephen Jay Gould. I avidly read his essays when he was alive, and got to see him in person on several occasions. I consciously model my behavior on his, when it comes to public performance. I remember him refusing to have an escort to keep the public at a distance; refusing to be put at the front of the buffet line, or the microphone question line. He remembered that public discussion is actually personal.
     I also shared his general attitude toward the intellectual discipline of science. He insisted, as I was taught to do, on the primacy of testable hypotheses, and on the testing thereof. He kept Occam's Razor close at hand. He resisted canonization of scientists, and felt they should be studied for both their proper understandings and for their misunderstandings.
     He was persistently anti-reductionist as a scientist, and most of the "controversies" he was involved in came from reductionists who insisted on there being only one answer to any scientific question, even though reductionism has never, ever, worked.
     I remember marveling, on more than one occasion, at how he could tell an audience in a packed lecture hall that their belief in evolutionary progress was bunk, that humans were not "special" and were not a culmination, nor a pinnacle, nor anything but chance. He would undermine their self-image, and they would applaud him for it.
     While I read his essays avidly, often in their original venue, I was not compulsive about buying the essay collections. Poverty was a major contributor to that tendency, as was realizing I'd often already seen much of the collection. The good news with that is that I still have Gould essays to look forward to. Six or seven books, in fact. I take comfort in this.
     Especially because, as stated above, the essays wear well despite the progress of science since they were written. The reason for this is that the illustrations he uses may have become dated, but the essays turn on the idea being discussed. Those ideas mostly remain evergreen. For example, three essays in this collection hinge on the question of whether the three species of zebra are actually a "thing" or whether they are independent striped horse-related creatures. DNA allows us to give a strong answer to that question now, but the answer wasn't the key thing in the essay, and Gould left it uncertain. What was important, for his purposes, was the question.
      I hadn't known until reading "Agassiz in the Galápagos" that Agassiz had ever been there, and I found both the fact, and Gould's attempt to understand why he never wrote a word about it, fascinating.
     I also got to breathe a sigh of relief that I'd never undertaken a fiction project that has been kicking around in my files for decades, namely a piece suggesting that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had participated in the Piltdown fraud. I have read several articles on the Piltdown Forgery, as well as having three different books on the subject (each of which fingers a different forger-in-chief). The thing I always noted as I read them was that Teilhard was, from a mystery reader's point of view, the "obvious" real perpetrator. He was too conveniently available, more conveniently available than any other known actor, and yet he was always omitted from the list of serious suspects.
     The temptation to make something of this comes from another fact: Teilhard was key in the discovery and publication of Peking Man, and all those fossils have completely and mysteriously disappeared. (Which is how the writer would put it. Actually they disappeared during World War II, and it's hardly a surprise.) Behold, I thought, a pattern!
     Well, a friend mentioned to me that Gould had written about Teilhard and Piltdown, so I had a vague notion that I'd better read his comments before pushing the concept any further. Yeah. What I learn from Gould is that he was convinced that Teilhard was a co-conspirator in a joke that got completely out of hand. He also discovered, when he started looking into the case, that all the major paleontologists thought so too, and that Louis Leakey was working on a book making a case for it, when he died. Some other major figures had held off making public declarations, because they knew Leakey was going to deal with it.
Besides the issues of opportunity, which I had noted for myself, Gould has searched Teilhard's writings for references to Piltdown, and the almost complete absence of remarks is enormously telling. He makes one remark about a missing part of the skull seeming "as if deliberate" but has little else to say, even though the Piltdown evidence was the only thing supporting his theory of human evolution. Too weird. His apparent lack of interest in the evidence, once the hoax was revealed, is also telling.
     I had entertained the theory that Piltdown was a joke that got out of hand (this has always been a possible motive for Dawson), but didn't have a clear idea why it hadn't been revealed by the perpetrators. Obviously if you set up a bait like that to undermine the authorities, you have to pull the trigger on it at some point. That's the whole purpose, right? Gould points out that if Teilhard and Dawson were the conspirators, then WWI could be the reason. Teilhard ends up in the Army, and in the meantime Dawson dies. By the time Teilhard is back in the scientific world, his friends and mentors have come down hard in favor of Piltdown Man. He may simply have been too embarrassed and ashamed.
    Anyway, Gould collections are still a pleasure.

The Silver Locomotive Mystery

     Edward Marston's The Silver Locomotive Mystery is part of his Railway Detective series, set in Britain in the 1850s. It's the sixth in the series, but I picked it up because of the lovely Early Victorian cover, and then discovered that Marston writes two other series set in interesting times (in this reader's opinion): The Restoration Series, set after the Great Fire of London, and the Captain Rawson series, which begins in the British Army in 1704.
     Worth a try, I figured. I love steam railroads and I read mysteries for relaxation.
     I wanted to like this better than I did. There are charming elements to it, and some fun moments. Alas, it didn't really work for me. Half the time I enjoyed it, but half the time I found the experience akin to reading student novels.

The text reads more like a teleplay for PBS Mystery, before the excessive dialog is cut out for the shooting script. I see that Marston writes for television, so that might explain the feel.
The characters speak as though they are actors in a play, on stage, being rather formal; rather than like real people. This makes sense for the actors who make up part of the novel's cast. Otherwise it felt phony, and eroded this reader's suspension of disbelief.
A good half of the dialogue is superfluous. Whole exchanges are repetitive, circular, or exist only to show what we've already been told. (The "Lady Gizzard warned him. "Be warned."" effect.) There were a number of maid-and-butler discussions. Almost every dialogue sequence went a page or so too long, by my estimation.
I completely lost sympathy when the protagonist, Railway Detective Robert Colbeck, insists (stupidly, to my mind) that the victims of a robbery must, repeatedly, ransom the object stolen at prices beyond cost. The excuse was that this was also a murder investigation, but the rationale was inane. And, surprise, it didn't work.
There seemed to be a couple of plot problems, including Colbeck leaping to a solution that was only one interpretation of the evidence. I wasn't convinced.

     On the other hand, it's only a 3-grimace novel, well below the average set by, for instance, Tony Hillerman.
     Clearly Edward Marston has a sizeable readership, sells lots of books, and certainly doesn't need my advice. A nice, cozy historical novel this certainly is, so if my aesthetic quibbles don't bother you, this might be a series worth looking into.

St. Louis in the Civil War

     My latest completed work is a volume of Civil War history: NiNi Harris's A Most Unsettled State. (The link is to an independent St. Louis bookstore. The book is also available from Amazon.) I'm not sure whether Harris should be referred to as the editor or the author, because the book is essentially a selection of primary sources from Missouri (mostly from its main city at the time, St. Louis) regarding the Civil War years. There's a great deal of apparatus, however, to give context and continuity to the sources. First she gives a summary of each year of the War, as seen from St. Louis. Then she gives background for each selection during that year, including connecting material when large chunks of the original are omitted.
     Since I have to teach from such primary source collections, I'm aware that the ratio of apparatus to primary text, and the design of the apparatus, are choices fraught with difficulty. It's easy to provide contextual information that is just as confusing as the text would be alone. (Oh, I see that a lot.) Many editors overwhelm the page with their own recapitulation of the history, and bury the primary text to the point that it's only a footnote. And in both cases the readability of the work goes right out the window.
     I have to say that this volume is a model of how to present primary texts to illuminate a historical event or period. I'm quite impressed. Those annual summaries are just two or three pages in length. The introductory one, "St. Louis on the Eve of the Civil War," is only four pages. She discusses both the personality of the writers, as well as explaining the content, while still giving most of the page to the primary text. This book could easily be a hundred pages longer (I'm sure there was enough material) without cloying; but I also felt that it was the right length. For those who want more, the citations of the sources are all there.
     I was also very impressed by the content of the selections. She favored first-person accounts (diaries, letters, memoirs) over official reports and newspaper accounts; though there's a judicious sample of those, as well. And the book contains many different points of view: German immigrant, slave-holder, slave, abolitionist, Unionist, businessman, tradesman, and nurses. Women are well represented, including General Grant's wife.
Disruption and social friction are two subjects that are focused on, and which give the reader lots to think about. What's it like to be anti-slavery in a town with slave dealerships? What to do when old friends end up on the other side of an ugly divide? How does one cope when the whole purpose for a city's existence (in this case the down-river trade) disappears??
     I should disclose that the author/editor is a relative, but she has a long and distinguished publishing history on the subject of St. Louis. This volume should, I expect, be in print for a very long time. Frankly, the idea should be franchised, since most cities could produce a similar treasure trove of material. St. Louis, though, is one of the most riven during that period, and it's lucky for us that the tale is now so artfully and efficiently displayed.


   As I was wrapping up the paperwork on the thesis novels for the term, I finally plucked from the shelves Libyrinth, written by one of my colleagues at Seton Hill's WPF program, under the name Pearl North. It's a YA Science Fiction novel cleverly set in a Fantasy-like post-apocalyptic setting.
   Let me discuss this cleverness. I read a lot of anachronism-ridden Historical and Fantasy manuscripts, by authors who really can't bring themselves to accept the premise of the setting they chose. They want a "simple" medieval or ancient world, but they want all the conceptual stuff that comes after. They want books in illiterate worlds with no paper and no printing. They want gunpowder-age ships in a world with no cannon. They want potatoes in worlds without America, and the Roman alphabet in a world without Latin. They want all the psychological ideas that Freud invented in a world that couldn't possibly use them, and characters driven by adrenaline but ignorant of biochemistry.
   North gets to have all that, and logically. Her world derives straight from this one. So while life is mostly primitive, they have copies of Huckleberry Finn. There are buildings with electricity. Our slang can logically be their slang.
   And that means that her readers can have comfortable familiarity, in an unfamiliar setting. Very clever.
   The fundamental conflict of the story is that there is a nation whose culture is bent on the idea that written books are made of "murdered words" and that oral tradition should be all. They intend to destroy the last known library (which is so vast that one can, literally, get lost in the stacks and never come out), but not before they convert key texts into song. Our protagonists hope to save the Libyrinth. It then gets complicated.
   A main character has the unusual gift of being able to hear nearby writing. The books talk to her, recite themselves to her. Which brings me to the really endearing trick this author uses to trap its audience into further reading. The quotes are labeled in the back of the book, so if they pique the interest of the reader, the source can be found. In other words, this book about defending a library may send its readers back to the library.
   So if you're looking to spur a young person's interest in reading...
   In all fairness, it should be pointed out that this is a 5-grimace novel, and that it suffers from the current meme of having characters, especially POV characters, blink at every crucial moment. Ms North was young and inexperienced when she wrote this, and it should not be held against her.

Tania, or Titania, or Tanne, or Karen, or Isak (or even Pierre and Osceola)

   In Savannah we spent a short while in The Book Lady Bookstore and I picked up a copy of Tania (which the cover then informs us was "first published as Titania"), Parmenia Migel's kinda weird biography of Isak Dinesen, otherwise known as Baroness Karen Blixen.
   An aside about the bookstore: it's a treasure. We came out of it with only five or six books between us, but that's because we had to fly home from Atlanta, and cargo space was limited. Should we go back to Savannah (and we intend to), I expect to spend the better part of a day in there.
   Back to the biography. I was introduced to Dinesen in college, by Dr. Peter Fuss (a Philosophy through Literature course which I remember quite fondly); and I promptly read almost everything that was in print. I even have a copy of The Angelic Avengers under its double pseudonym. Any number of articles have come to my attention over the years, including a review of this biography when it was rereleased in 1987, but I'd never thought to read a biography. The woman had an interesting life, though, and faced with a used copy ... I snapped it up. My level of interest is reflected in my having read it within four months of purchase. (I think the average linger time on my unread shelves is over a decade.)
   This is an authorized, one should really say requested, biography. Migel was a friend of Blixen's. She was also rather old-fashioned in her approach. Blixen's father committed suicide, but Migel can't be bothered to tell you that, and never mentions the method. (Hanged himself; but because the bio discussed his love of hunting, I'd assumed shotgun.) She does allow that he died "by his own hand" but that's it. Both father and daughter had syphilis, and Blixen's life problems with that disease and questions of whether it was cured are well documented, but Migel doesn't mention the father's case, nor will she name it for her subject.
   Which is just perverse.
   While the book mostly insists on Blixen's charm, it does paint a portrait of someone who couldn't live without an audience, had to be the center of attention, and who could be a bit petty about that. There's a famous story told here, of Blixen's late-in-life visit to New York City, where she basically summoned Pearl Buck (I assume from Green Hills Farm, in Bucks County), but when Buck arrived for lunch Blixen simply talked incessantly and didn't let the poor woman say a thing.
   I strive not to follow that model of behavior.
   Blixen's life was rich and fascinating, and she proved to be one tough cookie. She was an aristocrat, but not really; a Colonial plantation owner, but not quite really; a feminist, but against the grain (her mother and aunts were the militants); a writer who didn't fit in to her own country's literary world; a failure at marriage, a loser at love, and so on. Her writing, which was seen as not-of-its-era, needs no excuses. Indeed, my project for the summer is to reread some Dinesen while also reading Flannery O'Conner. That should make for some good hours on the porch.
    Anyway, this volume is a bit odd. It is more hagiography than biography. It's also relatively short, it sketches an interesting life, and I judge it an effective starter-bio. I expect not to have time to ever read another one, and this gave me much to think about. That'll do.

CBIP: student thesis novels

The Sinister Pig

 I'm down to nearly the end of the Tony Hillerman Navajo mysteries. The Sinister Pig is the antepenultimate Tony Hillerman. I'm not really looking forward to finishing the series.
 I seem to be finishing off a lot of dead-author series these days: van der Wetering, Van Gulik, Gur, Gill, and -- in SF -- Banks. Makes my reading-for-pleasure bleaker than reading for pleasure ought to be.
 Two caveats about this book, neither of them a reason to skip it. First, this is a 5-grimace book. That's about typical for him, and he's the author who sensitized me to the overuse of that pretty-much-useless word. Second, this book, as with most of the later volumes of the series, is actually a lot shorter than the average. By my estimations he seems to have dropped his target length by 12K words or more in the last few years of his life. This one weighs in at well under 60K, maybe 55-57. They feel less dense as a result; aren't quite as satisfying.
 In this volume things get ugly quick. An ex-CIA operative is secretly sent to the Reservation area to check on some oil leases, and is almost instantly murdered. The FBI's local office suddenly gets overridden by the DC office; Jim Chee has to deal with the body; Joe Leaphorn gets called in to find out why the Feds are tripping over each other; and down on the border Bernadette Manuelito trips over a major conspiracy in her first week on the job. Of course they're all connected, and of course they put everybody at real risk. The dead CIA guy makes that Very Clear.
 It was a good recreational read, it played on the heartstrings, it was over too soon.

CBIP: student thesis novels


      I was impressed by Sightseeing, a collection of short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, set in Thailand. This is a candidate for my World Literature class roster.
        There are six short stories and one novella, "Cockfighter." They are almost all set among the poor, though one involves a family well-enough off to bribe their son's way out of the draft.
        They are gritty, realistic stories, and the characters are never in a position to win happy endings. Survival, with minimal damage, counts as a victory.
        Lapcharoensap was actually born in Chicago, but grew up in Thailand, before coming back to the West for advanced education. He now lives in Berlin, I believe. I wonder if that's part of the reason that there's little that's uniquely Thai in the story settings. It struck me during several of the stories that they could be as easily set in Latin America, or India, or parts of Africa, except for a name or two.
        And that, by itself, might be an interesting item for class discussion: ubiquity versus specificity.

CBIP: student thesis novels


I have to apologize for the presentation of recent posts. LJ has gotten wonky again, and mutilates the texts in ways that don't seem fixable.

I'm afraid I'll have to look into shifting to Goodreads, and eventually a self-hosted blog. I've been delaying posts in the hopes that they would fix the latest problems, but it's just not happening.