Our Year in Reading 2013 Continues
Jeffrey Eaton, Editor-at-Large
The wonderful Library of America is in the midst of publishing a four-volume series The Civil War Told by Those Who Lived It. Each volume consists of primary documents chronologically ordered from a single year of the war, with each volume being released at the beginning of the 150th anniversary of that year (The Final Year will be released in April 2014). The books contain personal letters, official correspondence, diary entries, military orders, speeches, newspaper articles, poems, songs, and excerpts from autobiographies and memoirs published after the war. This year I plowed through two and half volumes and, whether considered singly or together, these are easily my landmark reading event of 2013.
Because many of the pieces are short and disparate, it seems inviting at first to idly flip from selection to selection. But the artful curation makes it clear that the collected documents are designed to be read in order, in their entirety. The initial context is set by several northern newspaper editorials sandwiching a longer speech by a Georgia politician outlining the southern position on succession. The effect, which happens often throughout the works, is the creation of a dialogue, giving the procession of events a distinct narrative. Reading it is not unlike following the narrative structure of modern politics. Towards the end of the first year, Jefferson Davis’ Message to the Confederate Congress is answered three weeks later, and at times addressed almost directly, by Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress.
The most compelling aspect of the series is how easy it is to read. Excepting some deliberately anachronistic writers like Jefferson Davis, the language of the Civil War is recognizably our language. The same cannot be said of the antiquarian capitalizations, spellings, and grammar seen in writing from, say, the War of 1812. Soaring above his contemporaries, and therefore a bit of a cheat as an example, is Frederick Douglass. In his speech-turned-essay “What Shall Be Done with the Slaves If Emancipated?” his answer is strong, straightforward, and palpably modern:
Our answer is, do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs. Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is just to let them alone. They suffer by every interference, and succeed best by being let alone. The Negro should have been let alone in Africa — let alone when pirates and robbers offered him for sale in our Christian slave markets — (more cruel and inhuman than the Mohammedan slave markets) — let alone by courts, judges, politicians, legislators and slave-drivers — let alone altogether, and assured that they were thus to be left alone forever, and that they must now make their own way in the world, just the same as any and every other variety of the human family.
Baring the cynicism of some über-politicians, the 1860s was an earnest age. Most of the documents in this series are wide-eyed and honest first-person descriptions and reflections on events. However, occasional forays into biting sarcasm are present and thoroughly enjoyable. Here, General David Hunter writes about arming freed slaves in South Carolina, an action angering some congressmen and not sanctioned by the army at the time.
I conclude, therefore, that I have been authorized to enlist fugitive slaves as soldiers could any such be found in this department. No such characters, however have yet appeared within view of our most advanced pickets, the loyal slaves everywhere remaining on their plantations to welcome us, aid us, and supply us with food, labor and information. It is the masters who have in every instance been the fugitives, running away from loyal slaves as well as loyal soldiers; and these, as yet, we have only partially been able to see with their heads over ramparts, or dodging behind trees, rifles in hand, in the extreme distance. In the absence of any fugitive master-law, the deserted slaves would be wholly without remedy had not the crime of treason given them right to pursue, capture and bring those persons of whose protection they have been thus suddenly bereft.
Despite the gravity of the events, reading this series is pure joy for any historian or anyone interested in the Civil War. Unlike anything else available outside of a research library, it is an illuminating augmentation to any of the single or multi-volume narratives that cover the entire war.
Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor
Odd things happen to people who don’t get what they want. I’m not talking about a disappointment here or there, but people who realize their whole lives have gone astray – shaped not to their own, but to others’ convenience. When people who once fancied themselves butterflies wake up to find their erstwhile brilliance painted over with a moth’s dull hues – they don’t like it. Sometimes they don’t like it in very dramatic ways.
It seems a quiet sort of drama in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 debut novel , Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, but it’s a quiet that turns strange, if charmingly so. Laura (Lolly) Willowes, a middle-aged spinster, becomes unaccountably fed-up with the only respectable role that Edwardian society has for one of her description — live-in caretaker to a married sibling’s children. Well, perhaps not so unaccountably – Lolly has a lively and open mind, one that appreciates and even desires the unusual. As for her relatives, well:
During dinner Laura looked at her relations. She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber, to find them almost unrecognizable. She surveyed them, one after the other. Even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. If the boiler burst, if a policeman climbed in at the window waving a sword, Henry and Caroline would bring the situation to heel by their massive experience of normal boilers and normal policemen.
With a polite sort of doggedness, Lolly engineers her decampment for a rented room in a country village, throwing her family into astonishment and dismay. Her first days in Great Mop (pop. 227) are “more filled with glory than anything she had ever experienced.” It is the glory of new things and new people, and with being obliged to no one else in experiencing them. Certainly, there is “something about [the villagers] which she could not fathom,” but she does not need close friends, and is at peace rambling in the woods around the village, watching fall deepen into winter, and thaw into spring.
That peace is undone when her adult nephew Titus, who fancies himself a writer, comes to live in Great Mop, having fallen in love with it in his own way. Though in many ways Titus is her favorite, he brings with him Laura’s status as “Aunt Lolly,” reimposing on her the sense that she is not her own woman. Great Mop, she feels, will soon no longer be her retreat and paradise; instead, it will “be a place like any other place, a pastoral landscape where an aunt walked out with her nephew.”
How her peace is restored is intimately bound up with the unfathomable “something” she noticed in the villagers:
She felt neither fear nor disgust. . . . She looked with serene curiosity at the future, and saw it but little altered from what she had hoped and planned. If she had been called upon to decide in cold blood between being an aunt and being a witch, she might have been overawed by habit and the cowardice of compunction. But in the moment of election, under the stress and turmoil of the hunted Lolly as under a covering of darkness, the true Laura had settled it all unerringly. She had known where to turn.
To put it more bluntly: “She, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922,  entered into a compact with the Devil.” How that works out for her, I leave it to you to learn.
A life gone awry doesn’t turn Bernadette Fox into a witch. It turns her into a neurotic – and a sort of avatar of contemptuousness, a contemporary version of Dostoevsky’s splenetic narrator in Notes from Underground. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a comic case study in what happens to people who never really talk to one another, and how they continuously misinterpret each other’s motivations. But like Lolly Willowes, the book also bespeaks the danger of letting your life take a shape that is unnatural to it.
Unlike the gentle Lolly, who flusters some, but actually inconveniences no one, Bernadette has rubbed everyone but her teenage daughter Bee wrong for as long as she or they can remember. The other mothers at Bee’s school dislike Bernadette – they don’t understand her refusal to participate in volunteer activities; she makes no effort to be understood or liked, characterizing them as “gnats” beneath her notice. Not that she’s entirely wrong — the novel is a send-up of (among other things) the absurdities of upwardly-mobile parenting, but the level of vitriol she displays is baffling, if hilarious. So what gives? How has Bernadette wound up here, in a life she plainly hates, among people she plainly despises? The answers come only after the travel-averse Bernadette suddenly disappears before a trip to Antarctica that Bee has claimed as a reward for perfect grades. In compiling an extensive dossier on the disappearance, Bee learns the truth about who her mother is, or more rightly, who her mother was, before she was a mother — a pioneering architect who stopped creating after the destruction of one of her buildings, thus becoming a bottled-up “menace to society.”
Bernadette might rather say that society is a menace to her, a fragmented world of small coteries fanatically devoted to various “core values,” all working at cross-purposes, provincial and narrow-minded. While it soon enough becomes clear why Bernadette disappeared (I, too, would take my leave if all at once confronted with a mental-health intervention, a visit from FBI agents trying to chase down an international credit card theft ring, and the crushingly fifties-era revelation that my husband has been unfaithful with his secretary), figuring out where she’s gone takes a lot more – including that same trip to Antarctica that Bernadette so desperately tried to avoid.
Along the way, we get acidly funny portraits of Seattle-area cooperative school parents, disquisitions on the quasi-religious dedication of Microsoft employees, and an account of post-trauma counseling offered to a group of bemused, not-very-traumatized kindergarteners. There is also some half-serious consideration of what it means for an unconventional and ambitious woman to opt out of her vocation. Bursting with unused creative impulses that are too outré for the milieu in which she finds herself, Bernadette becomes her own self-destructing project. Only when she reclaims her ambition does she become fully human again.
Justin Hickey, Editor
As an editor here at Open Letters Monthly, I come across many titles that you might not find while browsing your local bookstore (hopefully you have one) or the web. But they’re first-rate works nevertheless, belonging in bookstores and deserving wider press than their authors and small publishers can possibly give them. Each of these selections, though written for young adults, will also satisfy adventurous grown-up readers. And if you’ve got a pop-culture maven on your holiday shopping list, these books will make clever, memorable gifts.
First up is Radium Baby, by St. John Karp. Much like a brilliant episode of The Simpsons, this story synthesizes a greedy fistful of whimsical elements to hypnotic effect. The plot, set in 1927, revolves around discovering the true progeny of deceased scientists Alexander and Valerie Pepperpot. In a small Oklahoma town known for its glorious “radium baths,” we meet Sam Ticky, a boy with science in his blood who’s already been told he’s the Pepperpots’ heir by his adoptive parents. But his claim isn’t much against the scheming of Clive Chapman, owner of the Sun Studios Radio Corporation. The media honcho launches a nation-wide contest to find the Pepperpots’ missing child, dragging Sam into the limelight against strident candidates Gloria Noakes and Hadrian Sands. The three compete in a series of gonzo adventure puzzles set up in China, Egypt and Boston, to prove which child is smartest. Karp throws historical elements in with robots and giant hornets, keeping it all fresh by writing with acrobatic aplomb.
If you’re more a fan of brainy, widescreen adventures that visit the future rather than the past, then Edward Miller’s Cadets is perfect. Set in 2162, this tale fuses the often ferocious smarts of classic Star Trek with the combustible pacing of early Marvel comics. Competent yet rebellious cadet Ryan Thompson stars, alongside engineering whiz (and ex-girlfriend) Amanda, in efforts to keep the human-settled Milky Way safe from the deadly Altarran fleet. Supreme Commander Granthaxe leads the aliens, whose secret relationship to Earth is as astounding as it is humorous. While there are buckets of in-dialogue pop references (from a character obsessed with our era, natch), the best bit comes from Amanda surviving a blast of radiation like a Stan Lee creation. Teasing us further, Ryan claims that defeating the Altarrans will require “a damn super-hero or something.” While this plot thread doesn’t quite go where we think—yet—Miller’s tightly-planned universe gives me high hopes for a sequel.
On the more folkloric (and ambitious) route, we find Jayne Rowe Jones’ Retsbol Rises: An Abenaki Lobster Tale. Fairly a Potter-sized epic by YA standards, this novel sees a trio of youngsters attempt to restore a covenant established between Maine Indians and the giant lobsters with whom they once shared Mount Desert Island. Young Ani Banke stars (alongside sister Eliza), facing off against wealthy industrialist Barton Baxter, who has stolen an ancient orb that kept lobsters off the island. Now, quarrelsome crustaceans have begun congregating from all along New England’s coast, threatening the tourist season with Jaws-style terror. Again, what I love most about this read is that Jones rewards intellects of every stripe with winks that prove she herself deeply adores pop culture. She runs with a fun parallel between her two sister detectives and Nancy Drew; but it’s her extended Spider-Man riff that wins my recommendation. Her pre-teen character Roonie dresses in the hero’s shirt while creeping through the trees of the island community. We then learn that the obsessive Professor Bert Sol (perhaps twisted by a physical deformity?) isn’t at all what he seems. He steals the villainous spotlight from Baxter, and brings a daringly madcap dimension to a book already brimming with lobster recipes and New England color.
Colleen Shea, Editor
So exclaims, du Maurier’s doomed genius, Little Billee, as he gazes adoringly out at the great city from his artist’s studio in the Latin Quarter. I rather feel like exclaiming this myself, for in 2013, my reading heart was most deeply beguiled by nineteenth-century France. George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Alphonse Daudet’s Letters From My Windmill (1869), and Jules Vallès’ The Child (1878) stand out most for me in a year otherwise (happily) dominated by the English nineteenth century.
du Maurier’s delightful tale is of Trilby O’Ferrall, an artist’s model with the world’s most perfect foot; she is doomed to make everyone fall in love with her, doomed to fall in love with the very young man (Billee) she can’t have, doomed to fall victim to uber-villain Svengali (a musical despot)! The novel is tragic, yes, but its primary mode is the pure delight in its characters’ youthful charm, energy, and robustness. Paris itself, dirty, dangerous, and corrupt, is made of this great energy. It inspires du Maurier’s artists to great heights expression and production; youths will fall in love here! Paris is a place of life, and Trilby and Little Billee thrive in it until attacked by outside influences: Billee, by the shocked propriety of his provincial English mother who prevents him marrying Trilby; Trilby, by the eastern European villain Svengali, who mesmerizes her into both submission and great but fatally enervating musical success.
In spite of the novel’s tragedies, it remains buoyant with its own energy. And du Maurier’s own illustrations throughout speak to this literary joie de vivre.
In Alphonse Daudet’s Letters From My Windmill, Provence is idealized against “your noisy, dirty Paris”—but this revulsion is merely a plot device. Daudet’s collection is equal parts fiction, autobiography, and love letter to the countryside; it’s unclear how much of it is “true” and how much self-conscious rhetoric and invention, but the result is perfect and compelling, and so I frankly don’t care. As a literary event, Letters From My Windmill distills cultural nostalgia into words in such a concentrated way, that even a rootless runaway such as I am can’t help but become enamored of and convinced by it.
Paris looms threateningly in the background of Daudet’s Provençal dream, but of course, without Paris there would be no dream: it’s there for contrast, to heighten the value inherent in escape. It’s also a straw man, for without Paris, Daudet would not have been Daudet, one of the nineteenth century’s most successful and celebrated French novelists! Paris energizes his work as much as it does du Maurier’s, even if Daudet is cagier about acknowledging it.
In Jules Vallès’s deeply autobiographical fiction, The Child, Paris becomes the ultimate symbol and experience of burgeoning physical, intellectual, and emotional freedom. Jacques Vintras, the titular child, is horrendously abused by his parents; neglected, bored, stifled by their provincial prejudices, he’s nonetheless not allowed to indulge his tastes for “peasants’” concerns. Forced to study the Classics when what he really wants is to join his cousins in the field or smithy, Jacques would languish if he weren’t so sturdy—or so funny. He survives in part because he’s able to spend so much of his narrative space making jokes about his ill treatment:
I’m in Paris.
I arrived with my face swollen. When Legnagna, the headmaster of the school, saw me, he was amazed. “He’s not a pupil, he’s a bladder!” he said to his wife.
Anyway, that doesn’t prevent boys from winning prizes in competitions.
He hates Paris at first, but soon makes friends whose concerns coincide with his own. He begins learning of his country’s glorious revolutionary history: “Matoussaint and his friend—we call him the journalist—loaned me some books. I took them home on a Thursday…By the following Sunday, I was a changed man.”
A man, indeed; before he sees that his natural tendency for rebellion against injustice has been, and continues to be, championed by others, Jacques was still just a boy. Paris gives him intellectual autonomy from his controlling, small-minded parents; actual emancipation is only a matter of time!
I have this year, as luck would have it, most enjoyed books by authors whose works aren’t widely available (the latter two, especially, haven’t been translated much into English recently); at least there’s still almost all of Balzac and Zola to look forward to…
Lisa Peet, Host of Like Fire
This was not my favorite year. Between the final push through my master’s degree, three part-time jobs that kept the bills paid but only just, and the memento-mori pall of aging parent issues, 2013 was a bit short on joy. My one real indulgence was reading, and even with all the academic texts that kept me in a steady supply of Visine and Advil, I read a surprising amount for fun—hungrily and fiercely but, as it turns out, not particularly critically. Looking back on my books of the past year, I don’t have much commentary saved up. It seems that my eye for style, plot, dialogue, and pacing was otherwise occupied—a kind of literary strabismus, if you want. Which is not to say that I didn’t read a lot of very good and engaging books. But for this particular stretch, I was more interested in the ride than what was under the hood.
A run of Jane Gardam this past fall, though, pulled me out of the vapors for a while. It took me years of friends’ recommendations to get to her—not that my reading tastes have been exactly Anglophobic, but after living overseas for a few years as an early reader, as I got older I gravitated hard to American voices, Roth and Bellow and the Beats and plenty of Raymond Chandler. I tended to shy away from anything I might construe as fussy locution (and yes, I do realize the irony of saying that as a person who would type the words “construe as fussy locution”). It’s true, Gardam is quite British. But she is most definitely not fussy; under their veneer of politeness her novels are tangled and contrary and very darkly funny.
My favorite of the bunch was far and away Old Filth, the first of an eponymous trilogy. “Filth” is an acronym for Failed In London; Try Hong Kong, and the nickname of the novel’s protagonist, Sir Edward Feathers. He’s a Queen’s Counsel barrister, retired to Dorset with his wife, Betty, after a long and successful career in Asia. “Never put a foot wrong, Old Filth” says a fellow Bencher at the book’s opening, “very popular.” And a bit later, “Pretty easy life. Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.”
This turns out to be most emphatically not true, and as the book winds along—swinging, pendulum-like, from past to present, from East to West, from the almost comical doddering ease of an old man to a painfully alienated childhood—Gardam takes the full measure of the man. Feathers is what was known as a Raj orphan, children born in the Commonwealth’s colonies who were sent back to England, alone and far too young, to be raised by relatives or foster families in “civilization.” It’s the story of an abandoned, lonely boy, but it’s also an adventure, and a comedy, and a sly commentary on people not being what they seem. But it’s never once preachy or instructional, and you come away from the book wondering how you could learn so much about someone without ever being told. It’s that authorial sleight-of-hand where you wonder how, exactly, did she do that? And delight in the fact that you don’t quite know.
Old Filth is a good antidote to life’s blues. In one sense, he’s a caricature of the “Keep calm and carry on” ethos. But he also makes sense of it, rendering the silly slogan in three dimensions, and it’s all Gardam’s doing. Her novels—and I’ll count The Queen of the Tambourine as another of this year’s books that I found strange and surprising to equally wonderful degrees—far from being cozies, turn out to have a mysterious system of layers that only reveal the next thing when you least expect it. Like a trifle, maybe? A nice English trifle? Well, maybe that. And just as tasty; treats when treats were most definitely needed.