Books of 1916: E.F. Benson Edition
Freaks of Mayfair by E.F. Benson
E.F. Benson is one of the most reliable writers. He always serves up something tasty. Freaks of Mayfair is not a novel but a series of comic sketches of the kinds of “freaks” who lived in Mayfair, an area of London that I know mainly as one of the properties on the Monopoly board; I believe it is dark blue.
This book made me kind of cross with E.F. Benson but then I love E.F. Benson so I felt bad about that. In the end I wound up feeling sympathetic to him as well as sorry for him.
I thought the highlight of this book would be his sketch of Aunt Georgie, who will reappear later as Georgie Pillson in the wonderful Lucia books. In the Lucia books, Georgie lives in the fictional town of Tilling, doing his needlepoint and playing cards with Lucia and Miss Mapp and all the other colorful town characters. Eventually Georgie and the title character Lucia make their platonic relationship official by embarking on a marriage in name only.
Unfortunately, the “Aunt Georgie” sketch was the lowlight. While I don’t think E.F. Benson would have self-identified as gay (anyway, how could he, having died in 1940?), he is famous for his romantic friendships with other men, etc, so I felt let down to see his portrayal of Georgie was on the vicious side. The last thing anyone needs to read is a humorous skewering of someone who was born “an infant of the male sex according to physical equipment, but it became perfectly obvious even when he was quite a little boy that he was quite a little girl.” In a way it gives a little frisson of “I am seen, I exist” to see an Edwardian character who “formed a violent attachment to another young lady, on whom Nature had bestowed the frame of a male, and they gave each other pieces of their hair... and they probably would have kissed each other if they had dared.” But I hate that Georgie has to be a figure of fun.
“Public-school life checked the outward manifestation of girlhood, but Georgie’s essential nature continued to develop in secret. Publicly he became more or less a male boy, but this was not because he was really growing into a male boy, but because through ridicule, contempt, and example he found it more convenient to behave like one.” Depressing. But I think I’m starting to understand the enduring nature of the confusion between gender identity and sexual orientation (for example, when people get transgender people and gay people mixed up.) The original reason for this confusion is purposeful: sexual orientation could not be named at this time but it was okay to say Georgie was a woman. The “problem” is not really who you like, it’s who you are, hence all this tedious focus there still is on “same sex relationships” which throws everything back on yourself when you thought it was about how you felt about other people. Alternately, perhaps E.F. Benson really did conceive of Aunt Georgie as a (transgender) woman: because of the customs of the age, it’s impossible to tell.
“[Although] he did not care for girls in any proper manly way, he liked, when he was sleepy in the morning to hear the rustle of skirts.” “[H]is guests were chiefly young men with rather waggly walks and little jerky movements of their hands and old ladies with whom he was always a great success, for he understood them so well.” “Occasionally, for no reason, he roused violent antagonism in the breasts of rude brainless men, and after he had left the smoking-room in the evening, one would sometimes say to another, ‘Good God! What is it?’”
On the plus side, Georgie leads a happy life, drawing pictures and being arty and visiting with his friends. We should all be so lucky. At the end of the sketch, Benson points out that Georgie has never hurt anyone and that it would cruel to send him to hell, but it would be “very odd” for him to be an angel in heaven. The whole book has a light satirical tone, but it was meaner in the Georgie sketch than all the others. But clearly, as with all hating people, E.F. Benson hates himself (again, back to self, who you are is the problem.) Before reading this book I always thought that Georgie was Benson. Fred is trying to draw some kind of line in the sand between himself and Georgie. Oh, Fred is not like Georgie because Fred is quite butch! That’s where I started feeling so sad for Fred Benson and why did he have such terrible misfortune to be born in Victorian England to pious parents instead of (for example) in New York in the 1970s to atheists? And wouldn’t E.F. Benson be fun to have around if he were alive today?
Moving on to the more entertaining parts of the book, it was much more amusing to see Benson hating on his brother, who is skewered in “The Spiritual Pastor.” I mean, I don’t even know that much about the Benson family but even I could see it has to be his brother. All the other freaks of Mayfair have something unusual and undesirable about them, except for this vicar, whose undesirable quality is that he’s too good looking, too good at sports, too well-liked, too upbeat, too humble. What really makes writer Benson gnash his teeth is how successful the vicar is with his writing career, publishing commonplace religious essays. The examples of the kinds of things the vicar writes were fun, because they were exactly the same as some uplifting self-help type stuff you might read today (eg don’t be so upset about being late for the train, pay attention to the fluffy clouds in the sky!) But honestly not even bad enough to make fun of. Pure sibling rivalry!
There were other examples of things the freaks did that Benson thought were totally ridiculous which today are commonly accepted, such as practicing yoga and having a vegetarian diet. But yoga practitioners are not members of a persecuted minority, so it didn’t make me get all up on my high horse to read the “Quack quack” sketch. The chapter where I actually felt personally most skewered, and found most hilarious, was “The Eternally Uncompromised” about a person with too much imagination, just like me. Winifred Ames’ particular problem was always imagining that men were looking at her with eyes of silent longing. (She read too much sentimental trashy literature from the circulating library, same as Miriam in Backwater.) But Winny-Pinny’s greatest dream, of being talked about as being in a compromising situation with a man who’s not her husband, recedes from her as fast as she chases it. “Indeed, it is receding faster than she pursues now, for her hair is getting to be a dimmer gold, and the skin at the outer corner of those poor eyes, ever looking out for unreal lovers, is beginning to faintly suggest the aspect of a muddy lane, when a flock of sheep have walked over it, leaving it trodden and dinted.”
Other quite funny sketches are about snobs, social climbers, and older people who cling to their lost youth (“grizzly kittens.”) Just once Benson alludes to the war, saying “the myriad graves in France and Flanders bear a testimony [to the manliness of the British, maybe the war is why he has this topic on the brain] that is the more eloquent for it being unspoken.”
I noticed how often in my book reviews I start out by saying, “I expected x, y, and z to happen, but...” or “I thought it would be the same as n, but...” (In this case, expecting the sketch of Aunt Georgie to be the best part.) Or occasionally I say, “Just like I expected, such-and-such happened!” If this habit is tedious for me, it must be tedious for you. Is there any way I could stop having expectations about novels, and stop making up a projected plot the instant I lay eyes on it? I would really like it if that could happen.
David Blaize by E.F. Benson
Naturally, E.F. Benson published three books in 1916. Most of his books took him three weeks to write. He described himself as “uncontrollably prolific.” His biographer suggests that the whole Benson family’s prodigious output is due to mania. I say, a preferred kind of mania if you could pick and choose.
I didn’t read Mike but I read David Blaize many years ago. This is today one of Benson’s most popular novels. It is a boarding school story. I enjoy those, and it has everything you want in one, including terrifying but secretly kind headmasters, beatings, cricket, and lots of pranks. The heart of the story is the friendship that the title character develops with an older boy named Maddox. The most memorable part is when Maddox is ogling David in the shower, David doesn’t like it and leaves, and Maddox comes to apologize to him. Then later another character is expelled for bringing disgrace onto himself for writing love letters to another boy. Maddox says that it could have been himself and that David has made him “uncorrupt” himself, and David thanks Maddox for shielding him from filth. Because they have chosen the path of purity, they then basically get to have a love scene, lying next to each other on the grass, wriggling shyly closer, feeling intense happiness, and then playing sports. Forever after they are the greatest of friends. David and Maddox get to hold hands at the end because David almost dies (of injuries from heroically stopping a runaway horse on the high street.) A brush with death is the only situation where males are permitted to hold hands, and one of them has to be delirious or unconscious. I think you could read every book on the planet and never find a more striking example of an author desperately trying to repudiate sexual feelings and at the same time elevate the purity of love between two boys. When I read David Blaize as a young person it just made me roll my eyes, but as a withered-up middle-aged person I find it very touching and a bit sad.
According to Benson’s biographer Brian Masters, David Blaize was the first positive treatment of a romantic friendship at a boy’s school and while it was a critical success it was “dangerously new.” E.F. Benson’s brother Arthur wanted him to leave all that stuff out but Fred didn’t listen. So Fred received lots of fan mail about the book, including one from the Front saying “the lads in the trenches are sharing it and passing it around.” Masters says Fred would “not have been pleased to learn that the novel is still on the list of homosexual book clubs” and that “it does not belong there.” (This biography was written in 1991.) So Masters and I have opposite ideas about how Fred would feel if he were re-animated, and that is because no one knows. (Who is this guy Brian Masters anyway? He also wrote biographies of a serial killer and necrophiliac, a wicked zoo owner, British dukes, and Marie Corelli.)
Years later Fred said, “I have had more correspondence about [David Blaize] than any other book I ever wrote. That I think has been because there was no ‘book-making’ about it, but it was a genuine piece of self-expression.” And now we have a pleasing moment where I actually agree with both Brian Masters and the guy who wrote the introduction to Freaks of Mayfair, Christopher Hawtree. They both say that 1916 was a turning point in Benson’s development as an artist, as he stopped writing those unconvincing sentimental romances centering on a man and a woman, and began writing the comedies he is now known for. I think it is the fact that Benson is writing about things he actually cares about (in his peculiar way) that makes both David Blaize and Freaks of Mayfair so appealing and yet painful. (I don't mean peculiar in a bad way. He is one of a kind. He sort of has no heart, but usually in a kindly way, and how can someone be kindly with no heart? So it must be there but he is very coy, plus clearly he is not motivated by the same things as most other people. You go read some E.F. Benson and you'll see.)
Two years earlier Benson’s brother Hugh (the Catholic one) died of pneumonia, and in 1916 his sister Maggie died of heart troubles. Based on Final Edition, one of E.F. Benson’s memoirs that he completed just days before his own death, it looks like during 1916 all the extant members of his family were suffering from mental illness or just about to die themselves. So it’s really remarkable that Benson could be so funny and was only about to get funnier.
I’m going to read Final Edition and the slightly annoying biography more carefully instead of just skimming for the good bits. And I should probably read at least one of his other memoirs too. Then I’ll be fully ready for his two novels of 1917. I’m glad I have many more years with E.F. Benson before he dies of throat cancer in 1940. His best books are yet to come!
Books of 1916: Part Three: Natsume Soseki and James Joyce
Light and Darkness by Natsume Soseki
This unfinished novel, which was serialized in a newspaper, was Natsume Soseki’s last work, as he died of an ulcer in 1916. As the story begins, the main character Tsuda is going to have an operation on his intestines that sounds incredibly unsound and unclean. Think of the horrible and bizarre medical care we get today and then imagine it 100 times worse! So I was really worried about what was going to happen to Tsuda and felt that he was putting his head in the sand by worrying about his money troubles and his relationship with his wife, etc. But it turned out that the book really was about those things. Tsuda’s illness and operation ended up seeming more metaphorical than an important plot point.
I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to get from one end of this book to the other. I adored Natsume Soseki’s other books Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside. They were so lovely and brilliant. But he didn’t get a chance to edit this book and get it into shape, plus it sounds like he was sick and worried the whole time he was writing it. The afterword said that some critics consider this novel a “postmodern masterpiece” precisely because it is unfinished. But it wasn’t the lack of ending that did me in, it was the whole middle of the book, which dragged and was hard for me to focus on. I liked hearing from the point of view of Tsuda’s wife, O-Nobu, except that it went on and on without resolution. I also liked seeing all the period details of Japanese life, especially now that I’ve actually been to Japan.
Tsuda was a little bit like the main character in Grass on the Wayside in that he didn’t have very good social skills and tended to say things that made people feel bad without meaning to. The story really picked up at the end, when we finally learn Tsuda’s secret, that he has never gotten over the woman he used to love, and he goes to see her in a sanatorium, sort of like the one in The Magic Mountain except Japanese of course. His pretext is that he’s recovering from the surgery and he wants to take the waters, but naturally I was wondering if his pretext would turn out to be the truth and he would never leave. This was the section that I enjoyed the most but of course it came to an abrupt end.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
When I think of James Joyce, I always think of three people in my life who felt very strongly about him. First was my mother, who was a big James Joyce fan and talked to me a lot about him. Second, a boyfriend I had who was also a big Joyce fan, and we used to read bits of Stephen Hero and Ulysses out loud to each other. Third, my wife Aine, who had been forced to read some Joyce in secondary school in County Clare and absolutely hated him, and all other Irish writers she read in school (except Oscar Wilde.) She said they were all pretentious wankers. Early on, I had to work hard to convince her that James Joyce was not a Protestant, as she had lumped him together in her mind with Synge, Yeats, Shaw etc. In fact, just now when I read her this paragraph to see if she endorsed my characterization of her views, I had to persuade her once again that Joyce was not Anglo-Irish.
I read Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man in 2002, sure that I was going to love it as much as I loved everything else I’d read by Joyce. And indeed I was hooked by the opening page (“When you wet the bed, first it is warm and then it gets cold.”) I loved reading about the childhood of this sensitive boy Stephen Dedalus, and how his family argued at the dinner table about Parnell, and all about the scary priests who ran everything. But then I got to the part where Stephen starts going to prostitutes at around the age of fifteen, and I was completely bewildered and grossed out. Then he catches religion and becomes devout. Then he starts rabbiting on about art and aestheticism.
I had utterly lost sympathy with the protagonist and the author. Not only that, this Stephen Dedalus character began to remind me incredibly strongly of the Joyce-worshipping boyfriend, whom I had just broken up with weeks earlier. They were both totally pretentious and couldn’t keep it in their pants! (This is the same boyfriend who would get me so angry, the one I mentioned earlier in my review of These Twain. He’s certainly getting a harsh edit in these book reviews. Who knew he was so inextricably linked to 1916? He did have many good qualities, which were not at the forefront of my mind when read Portrait of the Artist.)
I ended up despising this novel. I bet if I re-read it now having had more life experience, I would have a more gentle and forgiving eye, but I probably never will. (Also, what kind of person likes Stephen Hero but not this one, when Stephen Hero is just an earlier draft of the same book? I think it’s pretty clear that the problem was mainly me, or mainly the ex-boyfriend.) I do get another chance to give James Joyce a fair shake in 1918 with his play Exiles.
I inherited my mom’s copy of this novel. It’s all marked up with notes, including D.H. Lawrence’s assessment of Joyce—“too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life”—to which I say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Much more magically, this copy contains photographs of me and my mom and Aine. Look at how happy we all were back then! These were from my birthday, in 2010 or even earlier.
Books of 1916: Part Two
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Since childhood I’ve been familiar with the plot of this short novel; people talk about it all the time because it’s so compelling. I even had the first sentence memorized thanks to my older brother. Reciting it was a warm-up exercise in some sort of theater class he was in, except for some reason they added an extra word, making it: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unpleasant dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin sofa.” And yet I had never even read one word of The Metamorphosis before now! It was so much more awesome than I was even expecting. So dark and weird and sad but a little bit funny.
Gregor realizes straightaway that he has become a monstrous vermin, but he’s mainly worried about how he will get to work on time and what would happen to his family if he lost his job. I was thinking, oh Gregor, you’re worried about the wrong thing, you just can’t face what your real problem is. But you know what? He absolutely was worried about the correct things. It’s becoming more and more clear that I’m the one who’s always worried about the wrong thing.
My wife wanted to know what does this story mean, on a metaphorical level. I never think about stuff like that. But I think it is a metaphor for being a lowly creature trapped living at home with your parents. Gregor is the ultimate back bedroom casualty. He literally can't leave his room after he transforms into a bug. Also it's about humanity, and the way we treat the Other, including non-human animals. Gregor is the one who is no longer a human, but his family are the ones who treat him so cruelly without sympathy or understanding, even his sister who started out being the caring one.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield
I can’t even remember when I first read this; presumably as a child. I think it deserves a much greater reputation as a children’s classic than it has. It’s about a little orphan girl, Elizabeth Ann, who is being raised by her two overprotective, uptight, city-dwelling aunts. Poor Elizabeth Ann is frail and vaguely sickly and afraid of everything, just like her aunties who “understand” her and smother her with love. When a family illness means she must be sent away to stay with another branch of the family who live way out in the country, she is terrified. But she blossoms as she encounters nature, animals, having responsibilities, doing things for herself, and especially her brusque but kind, plain-spoken new family. Elizabeth Ann (now Betsy) begins attending a one-room school house that amazingly seems exactly like a Montessori school, and she makes friends for the first time. The part where Betsy is left behind at the Fair, and the ending where Betsy must choose where she is going to live, elevate this book into a masterpiece.
Rinkitink in Oz by Frank L. Baum
I love the Oz books. Rinkitink is a jolly king with a talking goat who has to go on a dangerous journey with young Prince Inga. As a matter of fact, they’re not in Oz but in a nearby fantastical land. Prince Inga has three magical pearls that guide him, and he tries to hide two of them in the pointy toes of his shoes. But the shoes get thrown away and then they’re really in trouble. You think you won’t see Dorothy but at the last minute she and the Wizard and Ozma show up to save the day.
Usually you can count on the Oz books to leave out the racist garbage that is so prevalent in the books of this time period, but there was a horrible bit at the end of this one that I had forgotten which involves transforming the talking goat back into Prince Bobo of Boboland, and there’s even an illustration. If I were reading this book out loud to a young child I would skip over that part.
Unfortunately there aren’t that many Oz books left as L. Frank Baum is due to die in 1919. Do you think I should keep on reading the sequels by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who took over the series after Baum’s death? I have a couple years to make up my mind.
Backwater by Dorothy Richardson
The second in Richardson’s modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels about an English girl who has to become a teacher because her family has fallen on hard times. There are thirteen of these books and the series is called Pilgrimage. Last time she was working at a German boarding school, and this time she is at an English school. I love the way the main character Miriam’s mind works. Her romantic mooniness is so real and relatable. The most touching part was when she discovers a lending library where she can read the complete works of Ouida, which have always been forbidden to her because they’re too smutty. This novel really shows how when you have a rich inner life you will find splendor and meaning somewhere, even in the most depressing or banal surroundings. Unfortunately there’s a section when she’s on holiday at the seaside and there are some musicians who are described with the n-word repeatedly.
Leatherface by Emma Orczy
Just like last year, the Baroness is the only one who takes the horrors of war head on. Again it is historical fiction, set in Belgium (who wouldn’t feel for brave little Belgium in 1916?) during the Spanish Inquisition. A dashing hero known only as Leatherface because of the mask he wears has been protecting the Prince of Orange and doing other brave deeds for the cause. Fans of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series won’t be surprised to learn that it is the lazy, good-natured, tavern-loving man about town character who is actually Leatherface, or that the female protagonist is torn between her family duty to unmask Leatherface and her love for him.
A bit of altar diplomacy has brought Leatherface and this beautiful Spanish lady together into a marriage in name only, but it turns out to be one of those things where they fall in love after they are married. (I asked my brother if there was a name for this trope, and he suggested A Convenient Marriage since Georgette Heyer wrote at least four novels on this theme and one of them was called A Convenient Marriage.) I ate all this intrigue up with a spoon. But the bulk of the novel is about the horrors of war and people getting killed, killed, killed.
In the end, the town of Ghent escapes complete annihilation but the people allow Spanish supervillain the Duke of Alva to go free. “Perhaps they had suffered too much to thirst for active revenge,” is the book’s closing line, which I found unexpectedly pacifistic and moving. Also hats off to Emma Orczy for FINALLY laying off the anti-Semitism for one entire book except for a single one-liner.
Books of 1916: Part One
2016 was a tough year in many ways, so may I introduce you to 1916? I think you’re going to love 1916.
I was struck by something I read in a (very nice) review of one of the books of 1916: —“because anything first published in 1916 that does not contain a word or thought about the First World War has got to be interesting.” Yes, you’d think so. But actually most of these novels make no mention of the war whatsoever. They tend to be historical, or escapist, or completely surreal.
You may notice that I’ve only reviewed about half as many books as I did last year for 1915. But last year I wasn’t done until March! So what you are losing in volume you are gaining in punctuality. Basically I began to feel this project was affecting my brain perhaps a little too much. My brother pointed out that I said in casual conversation, “I read that book in 1911.” I needed to dial it down just a bit.
Uneasy Money by PG Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse is always a delightful treat. I’m so happy there are more than fifty books still to come! I went by the US publication date in order to include this book, which some may consider cheating.
Lord Dawlish has a title but no money, so he is delighted when an eccentric millionaire leaves him all his money just because Lord Dawlish (aka Bill) gave him a few golf pointers once. But when Bill discovers that the eccentric millionaire has stiffed poor but deserving relatives, he sets out for Long Island to try to set things right. There is beekeeping, romance, people pretending to be other people, and lots of hilarity. The only sad part is something that happens to a monkey. In the end, everyone ends up engaged to the right person. On the final page we are at the train station in Islip, Long Island, which today is a gross and unappealing town, but apparently 100 years ago was a bucolic spot where the rich built mansions. If this book doesn’t make you smile, your soul is in mortal danger.
These Twain by Arnold Bennett
This is the third book in the Clayhanger series, and my favorite. In These Twain, the somewhat-starcrossed lovers from the first two books, Edwin and Hilda Clayhanger, embark on married life. They fight a lot. I read this book in the 1990s and haven’t re-read it, but what I remember most vividly are the descriptions of how angry they get at each other. Edwin Clayhanger thinks how he’d like to strangle Hilda, but then he goes for a walk and after a while he calms down, and when he comes home, he loves her again. At that time I was dating someone who made me really angry fairly often, and I thought These Twain was incredibly realistic. Bennett’s World-War-I-themed book (The Roll-Call) will come up in 1918, and is the last in the Clayhanger series.
Love at Second Sight by Ada Leverson
My hardcore fans (yes, both of you!) may remember that two years ago I was unable to review Birds of Paradise because I mislaid it and therefore couldn’t read it. (It turned up in the end, in a knapsack I never use.) I was eager to rectify my mistake by reading Ada Leverson’s 1916 offering, especially as this was her last novel.
Love at Second Sight is the last book in the Little Ottleys trilogy. Although I didn’t read the first two, it was easy to see what must have happened in them—in book one, the main character Edith must have married her husband, and then in the second one both Edith and her husband fall in love with other people but remain together thanks to Edith’s bloody-minded loyalty.
As this novel opens, Edith’s family has a guest in the house, and it’s unclear who she is, why she’s come to stay, and how long she plans to be there. But Madame Frabelle exercises a strange fascination over all of them. This book is terribly amusing and I’m not even going to tell you what happens, other than it’s a scream. The protagonist is thinking funny things about other people all the time but since she’s kind and fairly quiet, people don’t realize that she’s amusing and smart. The husband seems like the most annoying person on earth, and he must be drawn from life because how could you invent a person that annoying?
This is one of the rare books that has a contemporary setting during World War I. The husband was not called up because of a “neurotic heart,” which seems to be like PTSD. Edith’s love interest from the previous book returns home from the war, wounded. This novel’s realism allowed me to see all kinds of period details. For example, when the characters need to look up train timetables, they use things called the ABC and Bradshaw, which must be the apps they had on their phones at that time. Edith also had an Italian composer best friend who I thought might be based on Puccini since (according to Wikipedia) he and Ada Leverson were great pals.
I really was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen, and guess what? Everyone gets a happy ending!
Ada Leverson’s Wikipedia page says cattily that after this novel, she worked on ever-smaller projects. Just like me!
Inclinations by Ronald Firbank
Firbank is a riot! This book reminds me a bit of Morrissey’s List of the Lost. Of course, that should be no surprise really, since both of them are directly related to Oscar Wilde on the literary family tree. What sets them apart is Inclinations is unalloyed comedy and nearly all dialogue.
What kind of inclinations does this novel concern itself with, you may ask? Well, it’s about a middle-aged writer Miss Geraldine O’Brookmore, known as Gerald, who brings a fourteen year old girl (Miss Mabel Collins) on a trip to the Mediterranean. There’s basically no description of anything or explanation of what’s happening or who is speaking, so you have to be okay with feeling unsure about what’s going on. One of the characters is shot and killed and it was chapters later that I finally understood which one. Plot is not what this book is about. This book is about lines so funny and with such a nice ring to them that I will just give you a small sampling for your enjoyment:
Miss Collins clasped her hands. “I’d give almost anything to be blasé.”
“I don’t see Mrs Cowsend, do you?”
“Breakfast was laid for four covers in her room.”
“Or perhaps it was only three.”
“She writes curiously in the style of one of my unknown correspondents.”
[Talking about a costume ball]:
“Oh, Gerald, you could be a silver-tasselled Portia almost with what you have, and I a Maid of Orleans.”
“Don’t be tiresome, darling. It’s not as if we were going in boys’ clothes!”
“Once she bought a little calf for some special binding, but let it grow up...and now it’s a cow!”
“Gerald has a gold revolver. ‘Honour” she calls it.”
“Is your father tall?”
“As we drive I shall give you all his measurements.”
“I had a good time in Smyrna,” she drowsily declared.
“Oh, my dears, I’m weary of streets; so weary!”
“I’m told she [Gerald] is a noted Vampire.”
“Who ever said so?”
“Some friend of hers—in Chelsea.”
“What do Vampires do?”
“What don’t they!”
If you find this sort of off-putting, these lines really do make more sense, somewhat more sense, in context. In a chapter that is eight words long (“Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!”), Miss Mabel Collins throws off the protectoress-ship of Gerald and elopes with a count. The final section of the book is different, slightly more conventional and somewhat Jane Austen-esque (“I’ve such news!” “What is it?” “The Chase is let at last.”) In this part, the Countess (Miss Collins-that-was) returns home to England with her toddler and there’s question in some minds about whether she is properly, legally married. I’m looking forward to Firbank’s next novel in 1917.
I’m only just now realizing that Firbank is the author that the main character keeps reading in The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. I guess I thought Alan Hollinghurst just made him up. The thing is that his name sounds so made up, just “Fairbanks” with some of the letters taken out. Ugh, I learn everything backward.
The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
I loved Sons and Lovers, and who doesn’t love “The Rocking Horse Winner”? So I figured I would like this one too. The Rainbow follows several members of a family through different generations. They live on a farm in the East Midlands of England. There was something incredibly irritating about this novel. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but as I was reading it, I was inwardly wailing, “Wheeeennn will this be oooover??” There were a lot of men who didn’t know how to interact with others or have real relationships, especially with women, which I guess is stark realism but was frustrating for me to read. Also, I have no problem with florid prose per se, just this wasn’t doing it for me. One highlight was a grisly alcoholism-related fatal farming accident.
The last family member was a young woman, Ursula, who has a bleak and depressing relationship with another women. You would think I would like that part but I think it was too dark for me. Then she has a bleak and depressing job as a teacher at a brutal school, which degrades Ursula so much that at one point she just loses it and starts hitting a student. And she has a bleak and depressing relationship with a man. Apparently I have blocked out what happens in the end.
Luckily, when I complained to my brother about this elusive annoying quality in The Rainbow, he told me that Kate Millett had gotten to the bottom of D.H. Lawrence in her legendary book Sexual Politics. So, here is what your auntie Kate has to say:
Millett explains that Lawrence is suffering from womb envy, which I would back her up on, and that the “new woman” (like Ursula) intimidates him. She points out that the chapter where Ursula has an affair with another woman is called “Shame,” which I actually didn’t even notice. (Sometimes I am so steeped in my own attitude that I can’t even imagine what the author intended, which has advantages and drawbacks.) Millett also paid attention to what happened at the end of the novel, unlike me, which was: Ursula fails her university exams and becomes a contented housewife. Millett chalks up the irritating quality of The Rainbow to an underlying sexist oinker agenda. BTW, I am not supposed to be reviewing the books of 1969, but Sexual Politics is nothing like what I expected. I had no idea that it was mostly literary criticism!
Anyway, I’m not sure if I can handle Lawrence’s sequel, Women in Love, but I am intrigued by the 1922 offering Aaron’s Rod. With a title like that, what could go wrong?
Still to come-Unread
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
I know, I know; why didn’t I read this one? I think I was a little intimidated so I was putting it off. I know Virginia Woolf is super famous and this is probably actually the best book of 1915, so I really will read it.
Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse
I am perpetually one book behind in the Psmith series, so I haven’t read this one yet. Here is my brother’s review:
“In the third novel about Mike and Psmith they visit New York, where Mike prepares for a cricket match. Psmith befriends Billy Windsor, the sub-editor of the children’s journal Cosy Moments. Billy is fed up with the treacly material it is his job to edit, so when the editor goes on vacation Psmith persuades Billy to revamp the journal. The current contributors are all fired and Cosy Moments features a new column about the pugilist Kid Brady and a hard-hitting series about tenement slumlords. It is unusual for PG Wodehouse to focus on the dark underbelly of capitalism, but he does so in his own way. When a criminal syndicate pressures Psmith to stop publishing the tenement exposé, he declares “Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled.” It is nice that Mike is not the slightest bit jealous of the relationship between Psmith and Billy, and at the end of the novel Mike and Psmith return to England, where they conclude their saga in Leave it to Psmith, a novel of 1923.”
The Oakleyites by E.F. Benson
Thanks heavens my brother read and reviewed this book for me too! As follows:
“The Oakleyites chronicles the lives of the leisure class of the seaside village of Oakley, apparently based on Rye, where E.F. Benson lived. Here we see the Dante classes, picture exhibitions and amateur piano recitals encountered subsequently in his more famous Mapp and Lucia novels. Among the Oakleyites are three middle-aged sisters, each a devotee and exponent of vegetarianism, Yoga and Christian Science, respectively. Their rivalries are as funny as anything Benson ever wrote. The difference from Benson’s later novels is that the Queen of Oakley society, Dorothy Jackson, is a romantic heroine. She falls in love with the author of facile novels about Marchionesses when he moves to Oakley with his mother on account of her health. Dorothy dreams of inspiring him to write a really worthwhile novel (apparently this was a very common aspiration a hundred years ago). I wanted to give Dorothy a little hint: “girlfriend, there’s a reason this guy is still living with his mother at the age of thirty-five!” But Benson apparently felt he could not tell the real story...”
Vainglory by Ronald Firbank
I got this out of the library but it’s due back soon. Firbank’s Wikipedia page says he was an openly gay man who was very inspired by Oscar Wilde, and “an enthusiastic consumer of cannabis.” So that sounds like fun!
The Little Lady of the Big House by Jack London
This is about a love triangle. I bought this novel but, I’m going to be completely honest here, I will probably never get around to reading it. 1916 beckons!
Will Never Read, and why
The Genius by Theodore Dreiser
The Titan was tough going last year. As described on the Wikipedia page, The Genius is a semi-autobiographical novel about a man who is unable to remain faithful and his “affair” with a teenage girl and then his wife dies in childbirth. I just couldn’t face it.
Boon by H.G. Wells
This is a satirical novel written under a pseudonym in which Wells lampoons his former friend Henry James. I was interested to read about it, but didn’t want to read the actual book.
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Look, there are over 20 more of these books to come. I’m sure I’ll read another one at some point.
That's all! See you in 1916!
“Sansho the Steward” by Mori Ogai
This is a poignant short story about a brother and sister who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. There’s no way there could be a happy end for both of them.
The Golden Slipper, and other problems for Violet Strange by Anna Katherine Green
A fun detective novel! The detective is a beautiful, rich, popular heiress. So why is she solving crimes simply to make money? Her special ability is to understand people’s characters. There was a single thread or plot about Miss Strange running through it, but it was also a series of basically stand-alone mysteries. The cases started out being the kind of crimes a society girl might potentially encounter, like a missing necklace, but became increasingly more atmospheric and gothic, involving hidden chambers and tunnels and caves and spooky old houses with dozens of clocks and a blind doctor who is a top gun shooting ace.
The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
I read this when I was a teenager and I don’t remember it well, just that it was about a group of friends who are having marital problems. I remember that the real story was revealed somewhat slowly, and that I liked it. I looked it up just now on Wikipedia to make sure I was even thinking of the right book, and I learned that Ford originally wanted to call it “The Saddest Story.” His publishers asked for a new title (very properly, in my view—I don’t want to read a book called “The Saddest Story”) and as a joke he came up with “The Good Soldier” in view of the war. I can only ever think of a joke title for my books too, so I really identify with this.
The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A poor little boy lives in London with his beloved father, who is working to return to the rightful king of his homeland to the throne. You may have figured it out from the title, but in the final pages of the book the boy is astonished to discover that his own father was the missing heir to the throne. I liked that there was a plucky character with a disability who neither died nor was cured; actually, that character reminded me a bit of Becky from A Little Princess. Not Burnett’s very best book, but I enjoyed reading it.
Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
This is the lesser-known sequel to Daddy Long Legs. In this epistolary novel, Judy, a rich socialite with lively and original ideas takes over the orphanage that the Daddy Long Legs heroine grew up in. I was charmed to learn that the orphanage is in Dutchess County, where I live. The orphanage is cheerless and unhealthy when Judy arrives, but she manages to transform it into a place where the children can have nice clothes, affection, a gentle education, up-to-date (for the period) medical treatment, and the chance to play outdoors. It’s understood that Judy will just run the orphanage for a little while, and then marry her rich boyfriend and stop working forevermore, but later Judy is not so sure. Judy comes into conflict with the orphanage’s crabby Scottish doctor, the “Enemy” of the title. However after a while their animosity turns to friendship and then to...? But the doctor is guarding a sorrowful secret.
This part of the book mirrors Jean Webster’s real life. I don’t know much about her, but I did read her Wikipedia page from top to bottom. In addition to being a supporter of women’s suffrage and various reform movements and education for women, she had a boyfriend who couldn’t divorce his wife because she was mentally ill. (I hear this story over and over, and yet I never hear about the undivorcable mentally ill husband.) Webster’s boyfriend also had a “mentally unstable” child. And it sounds like the boyfriend was not the picture of mental health himself.
Anyway, the least appealing part of Dear Enemy is the lip service granted to the eugenics models of Galton and Goddard, with discussion of the feebleminded Jukes and Kallikaks. Judy eventually concludes that there’s nothing in this heredity business, but because it was the “scientific” idea of the age, Webster gave eugenics quite a bit of air time. It does seem that the whole question of inherited mental illness was one that she had a real personal interest in, and I think she was honestly trying to figure it out rather than just being sensationalistic.
This is one of the books of 1915 that’s still read today, as a fluffy fun book for young people, not as a towering literary classic assigned in school. I think the reason for its endurance is that the main character is spunky and is more like a contemporary woman in terms of her attitude toward education, career, and love.
Victory by Joseph Conrad
An Englishman whose business concern in Asia (I think Indonesia?) has failed ends up living “all alone” on an island. (Actually, he has a servant and in addition the native inhabitants of the island live there, but he is quite isolated.) But when he rescues a musician who is being abused by her boss and brings her back to the island to live with him, the boss hires thugs to exact a horrible revenge. This novel was suspenseful and weird. I think Conrad managed to say something racist about every ethnic group on earth, but it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Spoiler:(show spoiler)
I never read any Conrad before except for “The Secret Sharer” which I quite liked and the first few pages of Lord Jim. But the way everyone talks about him, I was expecting something very dreary and “important.” Instead it was the sort of shlocky melodrama that I enjoy. So I will definitely read his next offering.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
I always liked the Hitchcock film, and the book it is based on is fairly similar. It’s a thriller about a man who has to clear his own name by catching the real killer, and in the process he unmasks a ring of spies, with a lot of picturesque running through the Scottish highlands. There’s an extended soliloquy by one of the characters about Jews who control finance and the world (“The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the back stairs to find him... to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.”) I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to take that seriously or think it’s ridiculous, but it was rather creepy.
Knulp by Herman Hesse
Knulp is intelligent and witty and everyone likes him, but he has turned his back on having a career or a home or any of the conventional trappings of success. Instead he travels around, sleeping in fields and visiting friends. Because he’s so happy and charming, he has friends all over, and they’re all happy to shelter their vagrant pal for a little while. The novel was told from several different points of view and depicts different periods in Knulp’s life. As he gets older, it becomes clear that sleeping rough has taken its toll and that Knulp is not long for this world. He revisits his home town, which I found very touching. Then he has a philosophical conversation with god about his purpose in life, before lying down in the snow to sleep. The god business is SO not my kind of thing, but it was actually really well-done and I found it quite moving. The “cheerful wanderer” seems to be a “type” from this period. (For example, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy is constantly talking about The Beloved Vagabond, but I don’t think I will ever read it because it is from 1906 and I’m certainly not going to make it to 2106.) This type is valorized in Knulp, but skewered in another book of 1916, I Pose.
The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
A top-drawer Sherlock Holmes novel! It has Professor Moriarty, a secret society, a long backstory, lots of contradictory clues... you can’t ask for more.
Emma McChesney and Co. by Edna Ferber
The longtime fans of my reviews (like, um, my brother and no one else) will remember that I adore Edna Ferber’s Emma McChesney series. So I’m not even sure how good this book even is, all I know is that I loved it. The best part is how closely this novel mirrors my recent life. Emma McChesney travels to Bahia and Rio, Brazil—just like me! Then she goes to Buenos Aires, Argentina—just like me! Then she meets Miss Morrissey—just like me! Oh no wait, that didn’t happen to me. Anyway, after a triumphant voyage selling a line of petticoats, she returns home and finally deigns to marry T.A. Buck, the head of the petticoat company who’s been courting her for the last two books. Then she spends three months in marital idleness, shopping on Fifth Avenue and attending important dinners, but she can’t stand it and returns to work at the petticoat company. This was a very subversive message for 1915, but Edna Ferber slides it right down your throat before you’ve even noticed. The most fun part is when a dowdy rich girl comes to the factory to lecture the shop girls on dressing respectably, but instead a nice Jewish working girl gives the rich girl tips on clothes and advises her to marry the poor man she loves. Unfortunately, it looks like this is the last Emma McChesney book.
Polyanna Grows Up by Eleanor H. Porter
Remember how bad Miss Billy Married was? So actually I didn’t read the famous one last year, Pollyanna, just this sequel. Polyanna is an inspirational little orphan girl who has been cured of some kind of disability, and has been sent to cheer up a bitter old rich lady. Polyanna is continually playing “the Glad Game,” where no matter what kind of horrible thing has just happened, she will find something to be grateful for. This drives everyone totally bonkers, obviously, but eventually they all swallow the Kool Aid and become incredibly cheerful in the face of life’s adversity. Polyanna is mono-maniacally focused on her Game, so that she comes across as a bit unhinged. A sign of trauma?
Just this very day, my wife was telling me about a concept of acceptance she learned about from an Enneagram teacher named David Daniels, called an attitude of gratitude. But you’re not supposed to concur, condone, or capitulate to bad things that are happening. Polyanna is concurring, condoning, and capitulating all over the place. I’m not sure if I can explain what I mean, but there’s a reason Polyanna is one of the most infamously annoying characters in literature.
Polyanna finds an orphan boy with a disability for the bitter old rich lady to adopt. The lady thinks he might be her missing nephew but she can’t be sure; however, she decides she loves him either way.
Then we fast forward ten or twelve years and our author is presented with a problem. It’s cute (maybe) to have a child constantly playing the Glad Game, but in an adult it would be insufferable. Eleanor Porter actually does a pretty good job of turning Polyanna into a semi-normal human being, considering the situation Porter had created for herself.
Now the book gets a little bit fun, as a few love triangles develop, with many comical misunderstandings about who’s in love with whom, à la Three’s Company. There’s a part that’s really bizarre where Polyanna is almost gored by a wild boar (I think I’ve got this right.) But the one who really suffers from this mishap is the orphan boy with the disability, now also all grown up, because he was unable to rescue her, and he makes a big production out of it. Like many children’s book authors of this era, Porter really has a bee in her bonnet about disability. In the end, everything is sorted out—the orphans all come into their rightful inheritance and everyone is paired off with the right person.
I Pose by Stella Benson
I had high hopes when I began this novel as it has a strong opening. It’s about a highminded young vagabond known only as “the gardener” (because he tells people some claptrap about how the world is his garden) and a woman known only as “the suffragette.” The author explains frankly that these people are poseurs who don’t know how to be their true selves, and they wander the world disapproving of everyone and trying to be avant garde, unable to have authentic relationships with anyone, including themselves. I guess there have always been people like this, and there are certainly still people like that today. The author also promises that even though one of the main characters is a sufragette, it’s not “one of those books,” which made me feel relieved after my bad experience with Delia Blanchflower last year. But she lied! It is one of those books.
I Pose completely falls apart when the characters alight on a Caribbean island that is an English colony. This is the most racist book I have ever encountered—it makes Tarzan of the Apes and Penrod look real good. Reading this novel, I felt unclean. I don’t really want to get into the details, but I will say, I think a lot of times people have this idea that racist English people from a century ago were just old-fashioned but meant no harm; it was all kind of a misunderstanding, god love ‘em. I Pose makes it clear that this rosy assessment is not the case—one hundred years ago, racists hated black people with vicious cruelty and made fun of everything they could think of about them and literally did not care if they lived or died.
There was a kinda interesting part at the end where the suffragette goes into a poor neighborhood in London and tries to get the women to unionize, leave their alcoholic and abusive husbands, etc. but all her schemes backfire. This bit seemed heartfelt and true to life. Now I’m going to go ahead and spoil the ending, since I don’t recommend this book anyway. The gardener and the suffragette decide to get married, but instead, the suffragette shouts, “I hate god!” and runs into the church and blows it up, killing herself. The end. What??
I looked up Stella Benson on Wikipedia to see what was her deal, anyway, and it turns out she was a feminist and a suffragette (it wasn’t clear from the novel which side she was on) and that she lived all over the world, including China and Vietnam. From her bio I would think oh, I can’t wait to read a book by this neglected woman writer but having read this novel I say, never again, Stella Benson, you deserve to be forgotten.
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
It has been quite a few years since I read this novel, but I thought it was absolutely terrific and I remember it vividly. The story opens when the main character Philip is a lonely young boy with a club foot being raised by his aunt and uncle. As soon as he is old enough to get away, he moves to Germany and then France where he decides to become a visual artist. That part was extremely interesting to me, as it seemed that, although art and education and customs of every kind have changed so much in the last hundred years, the inner work and the shame of “becoming an artist” have not changed in any way. It seemed very fresh and relevant. There is a “Least Likely To” type of girl who falls in love with Philip and dies by suicide.
Phillip decides that he doesn’t have what it takes to be an artist either, so he returns to London to study medicine. There he meets a server at a restaurant who is incredibly toxic. He falls in love with her and is completely under her sway, supporting her when she gets pregnant by another man. He seriously needs to get himself to a meeting of Codependents Anonymous! I won’t spoil the whole story but let me just give you a couple of key words: “sex work” and “syphilis.” But you will be happy to know that Philip eventually finds happiness and even love.
“The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
This poem is perfect, and I don’t even know what I could possibly say about it. The back of the copy of The Wasteland and Other Poems that I have says “Few readers need any introduction to the work of the most influential poet of the twentieth century.” So there you go. I remember when I was a kid I liked the way the poem is so interior (as in, the interior of someone’s head), and how it was about someone who was getting old, and I just liked how it sounds. My mom used to recite and read this poem to us and I can still clearly hear in my mind just the way she would intone
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
and then later:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.
She explained to me that when you’ve had certain kinds of dental work you don’t dare to eat a peach.
T.S. Eliot is an example of someone who was a horrible bigot but who managed to keep it out of his poetry (as far as I’m aware.) I wish Baroness Orczy and some others could be more like that. I’m psyched for more modernist poetry to come!
Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Soseki
I really enjoyed reading this. It was almost as great as Soseki’s 1914 book Kokoro. It’s about a middle-aged curmudgeon who doesn’t know how to get along with anyone, especially his wife and his family. This curmudgeon had been adopted into another family as a child, which was apparently a common Japanese custom of the period, but later the adoption was reversed and he returned to his original family. Now his onetime adoptive father has resurfaced, unsuccessful and unsavory and grasping for money, and our curmudgeon isn’t sure what the right thing to do is. According to the introduction, the story is autobiographical and the main character is supposed to be a very close match to Soseki. But I don’t understand how that can be—how could anyone who has social skills as poor as the main character have the insight to present the situation the way the author does? If the author were really as blinkered as the main character, there’s no way he could have written this book.
I’m looking forward Soseki’s next book in 1915. But oh no! It’s his last one!
A Bride of the Plains by Baroness Orczy
As you may know, I’m a big Baroness Orczy fan. This year I have to give her credit for something very special: although basically the entire world is embroiled in war, she is the ONLY author to address this. She was the ONLY one to write about war, and in Hungary in the Carpathian basin, more or less where all the trouble began. (Okay, I guess there’s also Mariano Azuela writing about the Mexican revolution. But still, props to the Baroness!) I know the production schedule for publishing a novel is pretty long, but a lot of these Edwardians wrote two books a year, and I do think some of them could have at least acknowledged in some way, even thematically, that there’s a world war going on, a pretty big deal! (PS. Are they still Edwardians? What am I supposed to call them now? Baroness Orczy ain’t no modernist!)
Anyway, no one seems to set their novels in the present day, and in fact Baroness Orczy is no exception; A Bride of the Plains is set in what seemed to me like a non-specific time in the past. But the book’s opening takes a pretty clear anti-war tone. It’s almost the day when young men in this little burg are conscripted into the army, a sad day for all:
On this hideous day all the finest lads in the village are taken away to be made into soldiers by the abominable Government? Three years! Why, the lad is a mere child when he goes—one-and-twenty on his last birthday, bless him! still wanting a mother’s care of his stomach, and a father’s heavy stick across his back from time to time to keep him from too much love-making.
Three years ! When he comes back he is a man and has notions of his own. Three years! What are the chances he comes back at all? Bosnia! Where in the world is that? My God, how they hate it! They must go through with it, though they hate it all-every moment.
By the way, I realize that there is probably a glut of war books coming down the pipe, and in a few years I’ll be very nostalgiac for the kind of books I read this year.
Anyway! This is the story of a girl, Elsa, who tries to be true to Andor, the boy she loves who’s been sent off to war. But when it seems that he’s been killed, she knuckles under to her mother’s pressure to marry the bad-tempered richest man in town. But on the eve of her wedding,(show spoiler)
The downfall of this book is the same problem that Orczy always has: anti-Semitism. Usually it’s just a few throwaway descriptions, but here the villains are an Evil Jew and Evil Jewess. Kind of ruined the book. That’s the whole thing about bigoted people; they just can’t let it go. If you hate Jews so much, Emma Orczy, why don’t you just stop writing about them? But no, she can’t help herself! Maddening. I will say that there’s a lot of suspense and action in this book, if you can get past the bad taste in your mouth.
The Underdogs (Los de Abajo) by Mariano Azuela
This interesting novel about the Mexican Revolution is cynical toward everyone concerned. The main characters are peasants who become rebels. There are a lot of funny bits. The most depressing part is how the women are treated like garbage by everyone. You get the impression that the people of Mexico will get the shaft, no matter who wins. This is the first Mexican novel I have encountered in this project and I hope I will find more.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I like Herland even more than 1911’s Moving The Mountain, and almost as much as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I think is one of the finest short stories. Although Gilman is famous for being a feminist, I don’t think she gets as much credit as she deserves for being a speculative fiction writer.
Three male explorers hear of a country that consists only of women, so they decide to check it out, and with great trouble make their way in. Jeff is a tender soul who glorifies motherhood and believes in being a perfect gentleman to women. Terry is a handsome man about town, kind of rapey and full of himself, and he thinks women should be pretty and serve him. The narrator, Vandyck Jennings, is sort of in-between these two and in general presents a “rational” point of view.
They are amazed to discover a beautiful utopia populated only by women, with wildly different customs from their own. In this country they don’t have poverty, they raise their children communally, they wear comfy clothes, etc. Long ago, a volcanic eruption and slave uprising led to a group of women who were cut off from the rest of the world. A few of them were miraculously able to reproduce as the result of sort of an exalted mental state, and this ability was passed down through the generations. There are so many novels about all-female societies where this happens—Ammonite by Nicola Griffith and Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno series spring to mind—but Herland must be the first.
The women the three explorers meet are all strong, intelligent, athletic, good teachers, and able to get things done. They confound the explorers’ expectations at every turn because they have no idea how to “behave like women.” Gilman takes the gender binary away and everyone becomes a person; however, she certainly has a rosy view of how nice an all-female society, or any society, could be.
The three explorers each fall in love and insist on marrying their sweethearts, which the women agree to in order to humor them, although marriage is a meaningless concept to them. All this time there has been no romantic love in the country because, well, when the men are gone, it’s just impossible! But they haven’t been missing it.
Terry and his wife Alima don’t get along. He attempts to rape her, but she kicks him in the balls and summons help from her friend in the room next door. Terry is put on trial, and the local Over Mother sentences him to be sent back to the outside world, with his word as a gentleman not to tell anyone about their country. At first Terry is obstinate.
“The first thing I’ll do is to get an expedition fixed up to force an entrance into Ma-Land!”
“Then,” they said quite calmly, “he must remain an absolute prisoner always.”
“Anesthesia would be kinder,” urged Moadine.
“And safer,” added Zava.
“He will promise, I think,” said Ellador [Jennings’ wife.]
And he did.
(This part reminded me of Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr.)
So Terry leaves, with Jennings and Ellador to escort him. Next year is the sequel! From Gilman’s Wikipedia page I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about her, including the fact that she married her first cousin, and that when she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer she “chose chloroform over cancer” (her words.)
The Scarecrow of Oz by L. Frank Baum
I love all the Oz books! This is the one in which a little girl named Trot and her sailor pal Cap’n Bill come to Oz. They meet a lot of lovable characters like the Bumpy Man and Button Bright, and they help the Scarecrow solve a problem with the monarchy of Jinxland.
I'm a little late with my reviews of the books of 1915! Then again, what's really the difference between a century, and a century and ten weeks?
The Song of The Lark by Willa Cather
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this was the best novel of 1915. When I told my brother I was reading The Song of The Lark, he said he had read it too, after he had read a mention of it in an article by Arlene Croce saying that it was one of the only novels about the development of a young girl into an artist. I was curious exactly what kind of zingy one-liner had entranced my brother into reading this book, so I looked up what Croce said specifically, and it was in a review of the dancer Suzanne Farrell’s autobiography. “Holding On to the Air isn’t really the inside story of Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine. The real inside story would take a writer of Willa Cather’s stature to deal with. In The Song of the Lark, Cather’s novel about a girl from a prairie town who becomes a great Wagnerian soprano, we discover the true dimensions of a life lived for art.” I do wish that I got to read more often about a girl developing into a great artist. In addition, the main character was a florid example of Enneagram Type Four, my favorite type, which I just loved.
The protagonist, Thea, is a Scandinavian-American girl living in a no-account town in Colorado. She has always felt that she is different from everyone else, and is fiercely sensitive and beset by envy. She is taking piano lessons from a decrepit alcoholic who was once a brilliant pianist, and it is understood that when she is grown she can make her living as a piano teacher herself. The town doctor is her closest friend and confidant. There’s a freight train conductor, Ray, who is in love with her even though she’s only eleven. Cather manages to convey this as sort of sweet but I still couldn’t help reading it as creepy. However,(show spoiler)
Always in her heart she’s thought of herself as a singer, but she’s too independent-minded and it’s too precious for her to discuss it. However, when her piano instructor finally hears her sing, he sets her on another path.
Although Thea is very single-minded about her art, she does fall in love at one point with a rich young man. Unfortunately(show spoiler)
Willa Cather writes about this guy like she likes him, but I don’t. I do get the impression that Cather finds it hard to take romantic love between a woman and a man very seriously. Anyway, the rich beau does remain very loyal to Thea, and so does her doctor friend.
One thing that’s really notable about this book is how not-racist it is, compared to most of the books of 1915. As a girl, Thea likes to hang out with the Mexicans who live in her town, especially Spanish Johnny and the other musicians. These characters and their music are described with seriousness, individuality, and respect. (I don’t think she achieved this high standard in all her books, though. I’m not looking forward to Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Cather’s last novel, but maybe by 2040 I’ll be too old and decrepit to review books.) Anyway, Cather’s descriptions overall are marvelous. They have a poignant quality, making me feel as if she’s depicting my own self, when nothing could be farther from the truth.
What I remember best about this book is a long conversation my wife and I had about the following passage about childhood and having a rich inner life:
“But you see, when I set out from Moonstone [her hometown] with you, I had a rich, romantic past. I had lived a long, eventful life, and an artist’s life, every hour of it. Wagner says, in his most beautiful opera, that art is only a way of remembering youth. And the older we grow the more precious it seems to us, and the more richly we can present that memory. When we’ve got it all out,—the last, the finest thrill of it, the brightest hope of it,” she lifted her hand above her head and dropped it,—“then we stop. We do nothing but repeat after that. The stream has reached the level of the source. That’s our measure.”
When I was looking for the Arlene Croce quotation online, I found a lot of other strange quotations about Willa Cather. People have many weird things to say about her. For example, in an extremely transphobic and unreadable 1997 New Yorker article, the author speculates that Willa Cather would have been “impatient” with Brandon Teena and considered his “gender confusion” as “self-indulgent.” I think of all the authors of this time period, Willa Cather would be the least likely to be a hater, but obviously no one including me has any idea what she thought (or would have thought) about something that didn’t have a name in her time period. Gore Vidal in 1992: “(Willa Cather) liked men to be men, and women to be men, too. She seemed unaware of the paradox.” Huh? It seems that Willa Cather conjures up some very strong ideas in people’s minds and she is still kind of a lightning rod when it comes to gender.
Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse
This is hands-down the funniest novel of 1915. All of Wodehouse’s novels are hilarious. Probably the reason I didn't crown this one as the best novel is a terrible societal prejudice against comedy. This one is in the Blandings Castle series, where people end up at the country home of kooky Lord Emsworth, none of them who they are pretending to be. This time, the heroes are two young struggling but spirited writers, a woman and a man, who both become enmeshed in the quest to steal back an Egyptian scarab that Lord Emsworth has absentmindedly walked off with. There are a number of delightful subplots and love plots, and several characters have health problems with the lining of their stomachs. The only thing that was at all tough about this marvelous novel is that the details of all the imposters are so intricate that when I put the book down for a week I had trouble remembering what was really going on when I picked it back up.
The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races by Oscar Micheaux
This was one of my favorites of 1915. It was different from all the others in several ways, the most obvious and notable one being that it was written by an African-American author. So as I opened it up I was really rooting for it to be good. I was a little perturbed by the dust jacket copy, which was a perplexing diatribe describing how the author had been cheated out of his homestead by his ex-wife and ex-father-in-law, very similar to the kind of off-the-wall, off-topic back cover copy you might get on some contemporary self-published books. This contretemps with the homestead involved a forgery, so from the title it looked like this would be the plot of the book. But it became clear that the homestead-marriage-forgery had all been covered in Micheaux’s previous novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (which I should have read in 2013 but didn’t because 2013 was such a hard year.) It also became clear that although the hero of The Forged Note has a different name from the hero of The Conquest, this is basically a sequel, and very closely based on Oscar Micheaux’s real life. So, for example, the hero of The Forged Note is an author whose ex-wife and her father conspired against him, and he is now engaged in selling his first novel. Confusing? Yes! Meta and interesting? Yes!
Micheaux has a very engaging style and describes things in a witty way. The main character, Sydney Wyeth, travels to different cities to sell his novel to the black community. He does very well selling it door-to-door to domestic workers and other people with humble jobs, but it angers him that the intellectual leaders like teachers rarely buy his book. He thinks they’re a bunch of hypocrites, and even worse are the pastors, who are depicted as a bunch of ignorant power-hungry men who only seek to aggrandize themselves. (Although there’s also one good pastor character to act as a foil.) Even though Sydney is very clean-living, he finds petty criminals who get drunk and gamble away all their money amusing and good company. These characters, who would be the villains or jokes of other books, are three-dimensional, realistic, charming people.
Because Sydney is so handsome, a number of women are interested in him, but he keeps thinking of a woman he knew that he had to give up because of a shocking secret he learned about her. Meanwhile, far away, too-sweet-for-this-world Mildred can’t stop thinking about Sydney, so she sets out to sell his book as well.
Sydney is a close observer of human nature, and he sees a lot of interesting things. Like so many of these old books, the things that are most fascinating to a modern reader are too ordinary for the author to even make note of. And there were a couple of places where I could not understand what was going on. Unsurprisingly Micheaux paints a grim picture of Jim Crow cities. Black people aren’t allowed to use the library, playgrounds, or community centers so there’s literally nothing for kids to do. Lynchings are mentioned casually, and the police arrest black people for being out on the street at night. This happens to Sydney, and when he goes to his court date, he is thrown back in jail for being articulate and insufficiently cringing. The lesson this character takes from this is that he should never show up at his court date and just say goodbye to his bond money. To me it seemed like a lot of this stuff is unpleasantly relevant to today.
Sydney (and Micheaux) have no interest in white racism or why it exists or whether it might be overthrown; it’s just a force of nature that’s part of the landscape. One of the other characters, a newspaper editor who like Sydney seems to be a mouthpiece for Micheaux’s views, says that white people will always hate black people and that’s just the way it is. Instead, Sydney/Micheaux was hung up on the idea, which seems completely bonkers to a modern reader ie me, that the black people weren’t working hard enough. For example, in one of the cities (I forget which one because they all had pseudonyms) there was a movement to open either a library or a YMCA for African-American people. A Jewish donor promised a sum of money but only if it were matched by an equal sum. The churches were apathetic and didn’t raise nearly enough money. Sydney is enraged by this and writes an editorial in the paper talking about how lazy and no-good the black people of this city are. He leaves town immediately because he knows everyone will be mad, and I don’t blame them. Talk about kicking people when they’re down! At this point I really lost patience with Sydney. I think he’s an Enneagram Type 1 so he has a lot of great qualities but he also has a stick up his butt and he thinks he’s always right and that everyone should be like him.
But it’s really interesting to read what is basically a civil rights story that’s actually from the time period. I feel like when I read these things framed as historical narratives, it doesn’t show the in-fighting and batshit craziness and sense of hopelessness that I get from this novel, and I know those are all characteristics of present-day activism. Also, when I was discussing this novel with my wife, but talking about it as if it were science fiction, she said that if her life were completely circumscribed by weird aliens who hated humans, she wouldn’t be mad at the aliens either, she would just be mad at her fellow humans, so maybe Micheaux’s response is more natural than I thought.
As far as the library/YMCA goes, Mildred saves the day by donating the missing amount of money, which was something like $10,000 that she made selling books. But various characters express doubt whether the library/YMCA will even make any difference or if the community will even appreciate it. Oy! By the way, everyone and everything in The Forged Note has a pseudonym. W.E.B. DuBois is called Derwin, and The Crisis is called The Climax. I forget what Booker T. Washington is called; I should have taken notes. I think Atlanta is called Attalia. Leo Frank is called “The Jew.” :( (That whole part was depressing.)
At last,(show spoiler)
Something one of the Micheaux mouthpieces says (maybe the editor again) is that there are no black novels with a romance between two black characters, because no one can take seriously that there would be two such people of fine character and that their love would be worth writing about. Micheaux clearly set out to right a wrong, or “write” a wrong, and I think he succeeded because it is a grand romance in the melodramatic style of the time. He really was a trailblazer as well as a great writer, and I think this book was an epic accomplishment, especially when the plot makes it clear how hard it was to sell a book of this kind. This novel made me think more than any of the other books of 1915 (even if what I was thinking was sometimes, “This is completely whacko!”) Also just about everything in this novel is relevant in some way to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation currently happening about the publishing industrial complex. Actually, I would make make the argument that not much has changed since 1915 in this area, except that today there is a different set of stereotypical stock characters, and it’s depressing. I don’t know how well known Micheaux was at the time but I think today he is a complete unknown; I never would have heard of him if it weren’t for this project. If Micheaux is famous at all, it’s as a film maker, but I think he deserves a big reputation as a novelist.
Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson
Another top book of 1915 by an author I’d never even heard of. Dorothy Richardson is a modernist writer, and one of the first to use interior monologues or “stream of consciousness.” Pointed Roofs is about a shy, awkward English girl whose father has lost all his money, so she goes to Germany to become a teacher in a girls’ finishing school. (All this really happened to Richardson.) Of course it reminded me a little bit of Villette, and the nice part is it reminds the main character of Villette too. The novel had such a natural, authentic-feeling flow. It is so refreshing and inspiring to read the thoughts and feelings of a girl, treated with such seriousness and depth. I feel like even in contemporary literature, men’s feelings are serious business and women’s feelings are chick lit, so for Richardson to have pulled this off in 1915 fills me with profound respect and gratitude. I really liked how the main character was able to relax and play the piano better once she got to the German school; it seems like just being British is a huge handicap to emotional and artistic development. The interplay between the girls at the school seemed very realistic. Everything that happened was realistic! Because Richardson was presenting such a slice of life, there were more things that I had no idea what the hell they were than in other books of 1915, because she was talking about products and fads of the day without explaining what they were. This may mark me as an incredibly shallow person, but one of the most interesting parts was when the main character Miriam is forced to have her hair washed when “Miriam’s hair had never been washed with anything but cantharides and rose-water on a tiny special sponge.” To her horror, hair washing involves having a raw egg cracked onto her hair. In some ways 1915 is just like today; in other ways it’s like another planet. I’m pleased there are many more books to come by Richardson.
Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky
This was the last book of 1915 I read. I kept putting it off because I was sure it would be incredibly boring and all about philosophy. I mean, Ouspensky, right? Surprise!! This was amazing, one of the best. Guess what? It is about time travel! I used to be obsessed with time travel and have read so many time travel novels, and even written some, and even got one published. So I thought I knew all the usual time travel tropes and tricks. But Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is completely original. It’s a completely realistic novel about time travel. This is what time travel would really be like if it were possible, or maybe it even is actually happening constantly.
You know how sometimes the character travels back in time but because of the rules of time travel, or to keep from changing the future, or because of meddling by the super-villains, nothing can be changed? This book is NOT like that. In this story, nothing changes because the protagonist is too stuck in his ways to change, even though that’s the very reason why he traveled back in time to live life again as his younger self. You think you would do things differently if you were fourteen again, but would you really? Why would you, you are the same person you were before. At first I felt very sympathetic to Ivan as he makes the identical mistakes he set out to avoid. Because being in school is so horrible. It’s easy to think if you had a chance to do it all over again you’d be a success this time, but actually it’s a no-win situation and you still wouldn’t want to do your homework. And I felt sympathetic to Ivan as he decided that this time his mother wouldn’t die. It is such an awful and impossible thing to believe, that your mother will ever die, no wonder he still can’t believe it even after he’s already lived through it. Even after he’s longed so much to see his mother again, when he does get to spend time with her, he’s churlish and uncommunicative just like he was the first time around, and he still causes her trouble that (he believes) contributes to her early death.
But it’s hard to maintain sympathy with Ivan as he spirals down through his life. The magician told him he would remember that he had traveled through time as long as he wanted to remember it, and he doesn’t want to remember anymore. Then he meets Zinaida. She’s the reason he wanted to have a second chance, a chance to win her. When we met her the first time, at the very end of their relationship, she seemed sulky and spoiled and to be toying with Ivan. But once I got to see the actual arc of their relationship, everything she did and said made a lot of sense; this was very nicely laid out. I was really just at the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen when the loop closed. And is this the second time he’s lived through his life, or maybe the third? Can he get out of the loop? Usually, I’m pretty cavalier about spoiling the books of 1915 but I think I’ll pause here, because you probably really want to go out and read this very accessible and short science fiction novel.
I said that The Forged Note was the book of 1915 that made me think the most, but actually it was this one. The Forged Note made me think in an academic way about black people of 1915, which is very nice but not super relevant to my life. This book made me think really hard about me and my life and what the hell should I do? You can’t ask for much more than that. Just in case you are too lazy to read Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I’ll give you the fruits of my labor. Obviously, Ivan is just like me, and possibly you, so I studied his mistakes closely to see how I can avoid them. These are his problems. 1) He daydreams all the time, like me. After becoming a schoolboy again, how does he occupy his mind? By thinking about a made-up universe called Oceanis. Well, naturally. 2) He never talks to anyone about real stuff. Not once does he tell a friend, “Hey, this weird thing is happening to me. I think I traveled through time.” And he never tells Zinaida how he really feels; he just blathers on. 3) Ivan never mends fences with anyone he’s had a fight with. He just assumes they hate him forever and he writes them off. I bet an apologetic letter to his uncle would’ve gone a long way. 4) He cares what other people think about him. He gambles away his last dollar because he’s self-conscious about how he looks to a bunch of rich people. Actually, no one really cares what anyone else does and they’re all completely oblivious because they’re busy thinking about Oceanis or being caught in their loop themselves. So why bother? 5) He’s hella lazy. How about when Zinaida tries to get him a job as a civil servant and he turns it down even though he’s penniless, because he’s a poet. 6) He’s always making plans for the future, or thinking about how he did things wrong in the past. He is in the present zero percent of the time.
That’s the one that really got me, because isn’t making a catalog of your own/Ivan’s mistakes just another way to defer everything to the future or past? This one seems like the real problem, especially in a time travel scenario, which is every scenario really because in regular life you are supposedly traveling from the past into the future but all the time you are only ever in the present. Strange Life of Ivan Osokin makes it clear that everyone is going through their life as a zombie, stuck in the same patterns they’ve always been stuck in, and the only other option is to wake up. So then I got to thinking, is it really a good thing to be woke? Because if you are awake and present, that means being awake and present to a lot of extremely unpleasant experiences. Honestly there are advantages and disadvantages to being a zombie. Ultimately I decided that since being in the present is one of my wife’s very few interests I might as well be there with her since I married her and stuff.
Anyway, that’s enough about me. Another feature of Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is a recurring reference to an English fairy tale which is very haunting; I don’t know if it’s a real fairy tale or if Ouspensky made it up. And there are a few references to an upcoming revolution in Russia that are interesting. And I really like the open-ended nature of the book’s conclusion:(show spoiler)
I wonder what he will do? I was really pleased to learn that Ouspensky has a non-fiction treatment of the same material, called A New Model of the Universe.
[This is a review of Morrissey's novel List of the Lost.
However I am unable to "connect" my post to the book as it is only available in the UK.
I also tried to "connect" this post to my own book because I mention it briefly, and I learned that booklikes has misspelled my name. Thanks so much, booklikes.]
I loved this novel. It was so strange and idiosyncratic, so different from anything else I’ve ever read. Morrissey writes like Daisy Ashford all grown up. Ostensibly set in Boston in the 1970s, the story actually took place in a surreal landscape that was not meant to have the verisimilitude of any particular time and place. I enjoyed the lyricism of the writing, and in particular I don’t think I have ever read any finer descriptions of death or awkward sex.
Usually in a book, you get a lot of warning when a character is going to die, but I was taken by surprise again and again and again here. And that’s what it’s actually like in real life. The random cruelty of death is put across very effectively in this story, and this is the realism created by the seeming unreality of the plot.
List of the Lost reminded me a lot of Gertrude Stein’s book of poetry Tender Buttons, which is also extremely unusual and non-conformist. Both of those books are so far from the mainstream that I struggle to explain/defend why I like them so much, because they’re indescribably lacking in point of reference. I think the key is that with these two books, I had to engage and grapple with them and so the experience is about me plus the book, rather than the usual experience where a book conforms to my expectations and plays a movie in my mind so I don’t really have to do any work.
I’m a writer, and in the publishing industry as a whole there’s incredible pressure to conform, conform, conform and please the gatekeepers and grab the reader by the throat in the opening paragraph. I really appreciate how Morrissey totally short circuited all that. It’s incredibly refreshing to see someone follow their own star and write whatever the hell they want and then get published by Penguin.
I was delighted or deeply moved from the first page to the last. One of the most affecting and true-to-life parts was the death of one of the character’s mothers. And something that just tickled me tremendously was an extended description of the TV show Bonanza. List of the Lost also surprisingly turned out to be something of a page turner. I started off reading it very slowly, wanting to savor it all and make sure I comprehended it, but by the end I was just racing through, wondering what would happen next.
As a big Morrissey fan, I enjoyed reading his time-honored themes (such as the perfidy of: the royal family, the police, the meat/murder industry, Margaret Thatcher, and child murderers) but this time through the medium of fiction. It was so his voice that I felt as though I was hearing him read aloud.
One of the most striking things was Morrissey’s iconoclastic disregard for what anyone thinks. It’s not just the evil people in power he’s unafraid to offend, it’s everyone. Does it seem backward and unhelpful to have the villain who’s a child molester and murderer also be a gay man who frequents drag clubs? Sure. Does Morrissey shrink from having one of his characters opine that some child victims are asking for it? No, he goes right ahead and includes this abhorrent idea. Although I’m usually so easily offended, none of this bothered me because I was just so taken with the irrepressible spirit of the story. (But trigger warning for these things!)
I can’t help but notice that a lot of people really don’t seem to like this book. I’m kind of baffled. Yes, it’s weird but it’s good. I do feel a special kinship with Morrissey’s unique sensibility, but so do a LOT of other people, and Morrissey fans are ten a penny. So...? I was wondering when I was reading it if part of the reason I loved it was just that I love Morrissey. But context can’t be escaped from, it’s always there, and if I like him wearing one hat why wouldn’t I like him wearing another hat, especially when he brings the same originality, passion, and elegiac quality to fiction as to songwriting. But I don’t think you need to bring some special knowledge to this novel in order to like it or “understand” it. In the opening, List of the Lost seemed plotless and it brought Balanchine’s plotless ballets to my mind. And I started thinking about what Balanchine said about watching ballet; you don’t have to know anything, you just open your eyes and look at it and think, Is this beautiful? Does this mean something to me? Do I like this? That was kind of what I was asking myself as I read this unusual book and the answer was always yes, yes, yes. But I am going to lend List of the Lost to my friend Rebecca who is one of the smartest people I know (and yet she does not listen to Morrissey and she teaches college English) to see what she makes of it. Obviously, as with any book, it’s a matter of taste, but where are the other folks who think this tastes delicious? Part of me wants to be this book’s champion because it isn’t being appreciated, but the rest of me realizes that this book can stand on its own two feet and does not need me of all people to be its champion. (Also, if Morrissey were unable to withstand bad reviews and mockery, then he could not be still alive today.)
Morrissey’s novel also made me think a lot about my own so-called writing. As it happens, my most recently published book was also a gothic romance. My number one concern was the portrayal and representation of marginalized people, but beyond that literally my only aims were to make the book as accessible and entertaining as I could. And now I feel like, why? Okay, I write YA instead of literary fiction, but what is so great about trying to please people? (Which by the way does not work.) Isn’t there more to writing than trying to churn out a potboiler that adheres to certain conventions of how a story is supposed to be told? What do I really have to say? If I cast aside everything I think I know about my narrative identity, who or what am I as a writer? Or am I even a writer? I believe I have a lot to learn from the unabashed individuality of List of the Lost.
Now I am going to get specific about some things that happen in the story, so if you don’t want to know what happens, it’s time for you to stop reading. Spoiler alert, okay?...
List of the Lost is about a college men’s relay team on the cusp of incredible success in their sport. The four runners are physically at the peak of perfection and they have an easy and loving friendship. Then they are at some sort of runners’ retreat, and in the woods they unexpectedly encounter a repulsive old vagrant who however has a sympathetic backstory which he relates in a long soliloquy. At that point I had to stop reading, so my mind was spinning about what would happen next. In the hands of a hack (i.e. like myself), the old man would lay a curse on them and then one by one some terrible supernatural thing would befall each runner and they would certainly not win their big race and perhaps some or all of them would die. Well, in a way that’s not too far off, but my version would be very Lois Duncan/Final Destination. What Morrissey actually chose to do, though, is for the old man to try to sexually assault Ezra, one of the runners. Ezra hits him and the man falls down stone dead. (Let me say again, people die very abruptly in this novel!) The friends hide the body and run off. Then not long after, Harri’s mother dies and while Harri is at the very bottom of despair, a drug dealer who may be some sort of ghost or may be just an ordinary drug dealer, sells Harri everything he needs to end his pain and die by suicide. The remaining three are wracked with sadness and start to question the point of everything. Then a ghost appears to Ezra asking him to uncover the body of her child who was murdered decades ago. Actually, I’m going to leave it at that. List of the Lost turned out to be far from plotless; there were a lot of exciting things that happened and there was a very clear trajectory to the action. But the plot was not the main thing. And I can’t deliver the “main thing” to you in a book review. You’re going to have to find out for yourself.
I love adoption memoirs and I love ballet memoirs, so it’s no surprise that I loved this book. I’m just going to go ahead and spoil everything that happens.
Mabinty was born to loving parents in Sierra Leone who treated her like a treasure even when other family members said it was a disappointment that she was a girl. They taught her to read at a very young age because their dream for her was an education. If you’re like me, you look at the photos first, and I was puzzled when I read that Mabinty was an only child, because there were lots of photos of her and her sister, who share a strong resemblance. Then Mabinty’s father was killed at his job in a diamond mine by rebels during the civil war, and her mother died of Lassa fever. Mabinty’s uncle took her to an orphanage, a real shady establishment, but at least there she was spared from starvation and being killed by rebel soldiers. She made a best friend there, also named Mabinty. (The children were ranked based by popularity and adoptability, so the two girls were known as Mabinty 26 and Mabinty 27, and referred to only by their numbers. Unfortunately there were only 27 children in the orphanage, so they were at the bottom of the pecking order and got the smallest amounts of food.) At one point our Mabinty finds an old copy of Dance Magazine. When she sees the ballerina on the cover, she knows that’s what she wants to be too. She was clearly born to dance ballet. All of this early material is told from a very authentic child’s POV. The bad people are fairy tale evil. Except it’s all real.
The whole orphanage had to evacuate to a refugee camp in Guinea. All the other children were given “family books” prepared by their American adoptive families, except our Mabinty. She is told no one wanted to adopt her because of her skin condition, vitiligo. So she reads her best friend Mabinty’s book, trying to live vicariously, but she’s heartbroken that not only was she not chosen, she’s going to lose her best friend too. But at the last moment she is told there is a family for her after all. Her best friend Mabinty’s new family has decided to adopt her too! So that was a fun surprise. And the mystery of the photos is solved.
I was even more surprised on the next page when we learn that her new parents had three much older living sons by birth as well as two sons by adoption named Michael and Cubby who had died of AIDS some years before. I realized I knew exactly who her new family was! I read her mother’s memoir/exposé Cry Bloody Murder in 1999. I had actually wanted to read it again, but couldn’t remember the name or the author’s name.
Having two children with the same name doesn’t work out, so the girls are given new American names, Michaela and Mia. They adjust to a very different life in the USA and the girls begin ballet lessons as soon as humanly possible. (Mia likes ballet okay, but she prefers playing the piano and oboe.) Then as the family is planning a trip to Scotland, the mom finds out about another girl from the same orphanage whose adoption has disrupted. “Can we take her?” she asks. “Of course not!” says the dad. “Do you know how complicated it would be to take someone else’s child to a foreign country?” “I mean can we adopt her?” the mom persists. The dad laughs. “I thought you wanted to take her to Scotland. Of course we can adopt her!” So Michaela gains another sister. During the course of the book, she gets three more sisters, but says almost nothing about them. I actually think that’s very smart. There was probably a lot of drama in their lives, and Michaela (and her mom who is the co-author) decided to keep that to themselves and give the sisters their privacy. There was definitely a focus in this book on keeping things positive.
However... I had a bad feeling that someone was going to die. I thought it was going to be sister Mia, but it turned out to be brother Teddy, who like his brothers was a hemophiliac and had contracted HIV/AIDS via contaminated blood-clotting product. I felt incredibly sympathy for this family, and I also admire their resilience. If even one of the things that happened to them happened to me, I would slink through the rest of my life barely getting by until at last I gratefully toppled into my own grave. But these people have dreams, drive, ambition, and a non-stop desire to help others. Which brings us to the ballet portion of this book.
I loved reading about Michaela’s dance studies and the competitions she was in and the different roles she learned. I would have liked even more about that but I know it’s hard to please everyone. I loved the part where she met Arthur Mitchell, and he gave her special coaching and truly terrible nicknames. And I loved when the family met Albert Evans at the New York State Theater but Michaela was afraid of him because he was wearing a camouflage pattern like the rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone. I loved when she found out who was the dancer on the magazine cover who had inspired her so much as a child (Magali Messac.) But it was sad reading about the institutionalized racism of the ballet world. I mean, basically, she encountered prejudiced assumptions everywhere (people constantly believe her to be her parents’ home health care aide) but it was particularly pernicious in the ballet setting. It seems as though nothing has changed much since Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem; it’s still incredibly unusual to find African-American ballerinas and there are as many bigoted stereotypes as ever.
Both writers, Micheala and her mother, were very modest about themselves. They had numerous opportunities to brag, but didn’t. I was very impressed at how Michaela’s mother could not only braid in hair extensions but could also create and dye a tutu from scratch. I’m glad that I had an opportunity to see Michaela dance with DTH during her year there, as I doubt I will ever see the company she is in now, the Dutch National Ballet.
Theme song: Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky
Book design: I can’t discuss this topic anymore, but I can pass on the reaction of the librarian as I checked out this book. I have taken hundreds of books out of that library, some extremely bizarre, but I only ever receive comments on books about ballet. The librarian said, “What a beautiful cover!” and stared at it.
Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
I have to thank my friend Rebecca for recommending this one. When I told her I was reviewing the books of 1914, she immediately said she thought Tender Buttons came out that year, and she was absolutely right. I always work from the “191X in Literature” Wikipedia page, and every year I end up adding about a dozen women authors who were not included. But I don’t know anything about poetry, so the poetry section had remained all-male until Rebecca tipped me off about Gertrude Stein. (I later added Amy Lowell and just now I added Katherine Tynan.)
When my brother heard about Tender Buttons, he said, “I’ll bet no one has ever read it from front to back before,” even though he knew it was very short. When my girlfriend, whose head is in the gutter, heard the title Tender Buttons, she asked, “Is it about sex?” Before anyone even opens the cover, this book provokes a strong reaction.
I was excited for Tender Buttons because it is the first Modernist book I’ve encountered in this project. My only previous interaction with Stein was seeing her opera The Mother of Us All over ten years ago. (At least I think I saw it? Could there be more than one opera about Susan B. Anthony?) I began reading Tender Buttons, and I was tickled to see how the poems are in the same format as prose usually is. If I hadn’t been told it was a book of poetry, I wouldn’t have known. It was so different from all the other books of 1914 that it was like a breath of fresh air. Here’s an example:
Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless rats, this is this.
I was reading along, and while I was enjoying the cadence of the words and the feeling they evoked, I didn’t understand it at all. It made no sense to me whatsoever. I read this one to Aine:
If the speed is open, if the color is careless, if the selection of a strong scent is not awkward, if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color, not any color. If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing.
This is no dark custom and it is not even acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread. That is spread, it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing.
“Yeah, she’s on drugs,” she replied.
I knew I needed help, so I asked Rebecca to come over and explain Tender Buttons to me. When I confessed that I was enjoying it but I couldn’t understand it, she reassured me that no one understands Tender Buttons. She said if I liked it, then I understand it. I can’t remember exactly what else Rebecca said, but this is the gist of what I retained. She said that I’m free to interact with Tender Buttons any way I want, and it's Rebecca’s favorite book of poetry. Also that Gertrude Stein was trying to create an eternal present even though this is impossible, and that she was experimenting with something that is completely plotless. This made me think of Balanchine’s ballets.
I told Rebecca I was worried because I felt I was being influenced by context and having been told that this is a ground-breaking work by an amazing writer, and I don’t know how I would have felt about it if I’d read it on the internet and been told it was flash fiction by a brand new writer. Maybe I just like it because I feel like I’m supposed to or I want to be in the cool kids club. But I do feel this book is as weird today as it was a century ago, which is something. Rebecca said she thought Gertrude Stein would say that you cannot escape from context, there is always context. She said Gertrude Stein is very permissive, except for a few things that she was very bossy about, like “This one is poetry. This one is a dialogue,” etc. Rebecca also encouraged me not to rush through Tender Buttons, which I had been doing because it was the end of December and obviously I was on a tight schedule since 1914, I mean 2014, was almost over. I decided I have the rest of my life to finish it. So I’ve only read the first section, “Objects,” and there are two more, “Food” and “Rooms.”
Speaking of which, I got a copy out of the library which is just the “Objects” section and it is illustrated (by Lisa Congdon.) At first I liked the whimsical illustrations, but then I started to feel like they were interfering with the working of my own imagination. Also there’s only so much weirdness that one thing can contain. I was thinking maybe I ought to try illustrating the “Food” section myself.
Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds by Amy Lowell
I also didn’t read all of this, only a bit. At first I thought it was boring but then I got sucked in. I liked the title poem, in which a writer meets a strange man who at first seems to be an arms dealer and then an opium dealer, but who actually helps writers in exchange for... their entire lives. The writer character enters into the bargain without agreeing or realizing, or he has already agreed simply by becoming a writer.
North of Boston by Robert Frost
I went into re-reading this book thinking I love the short poems, like “Mending Wall,” “After Apple Picking,” “The Wood-Pile,” and “Good Hours” but not the long ones that have a lot of dialogue. But actually I do like some of them too: “The Death of the Hired Man,” “A Hundred Collars,” and “Blueberries.” My new favorite was “Home Burial” which I must have read before but I have no memory of it; how do you like this part?
... The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well no try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
So pretty much a ringing endorsement for Robert Frost from me.
What didn’t I read, and why?
Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki
I’ve had it up to here with Saki’s anti-Semitism, so I skipped this year’s offering, but I did notice that some of the stories in this book are his most famous ones that are frequently anthologized, like “The Open Window,” “The Schartz-Metterklume Method,” “A Touch of Realism,” and “The Byzantine Omelette.” There’s no need for you to go through life without reading “The Open Window.”
The Flying Inn by G.K. Chesterton
I liked some of Chesterton’s other stuff, but when I read that this one was xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-vegetarian, I figured why should I put myself through that? You can get all that stuff in our present day.
Bird of Paradise by Ada Leverson
I bought this book, and then what did I do with it? Where is it? My dementia seems to be getting worse. When I told my brother he said, “Oh no! That’s sure to be the best book of 1914!” He said he read all her other novels and they’re all fabulous. Oh no!
That's all for the Best of 1914! Thank you for reading and I'll return next January with the best of 1915.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
This book was a lot of fun, however you will not be surprised to learn that it is marred by horrible racism toward Africans. Things that might surprise you about the world of Tarzan:
Tarzan fell in love with Jane, and rescued her (and everyone else in her party) from terrible danger, and behaved like a complete gentleman to her. He left her love notes, however she did not understand that they were from him, since she did not know he could read and write. Then Tarzan found someone to teach him to speak. Unfortunately he was taught to speak French! His one aim was to go to Baltimore where Jane was, and on the way he learned to eat cooked food with a knife and fork, speak English, etc. He arrived just in the nick of time to rescue Jane from a terrible fire. Unfortunately Jane had just gotten engaged to be married to another guy because she and her father were broke, but Tarzan threatened the guy into breaking the engagement, and Tarzan also gave Jane and her father a big treasure chest of gold. Then Jane decided that although she loved Tarzan, she’d better marry someone else because Tarzan was too wild. When Tarzan proposed, Jane realized she wanted to marry him after all but she’s just agreed to marry Tarzan’s cousin. Then Tarzan got the result of his fingerprint analysis (don’t ask) that proved he was the real Lord Greystoke. But since Jane was going to marry the supposed Lord Greystoke, Tarzan nobly suppressed this information, and told people that he was the son of a human woman and an ape. I know I’ve focused a lot on Jane, but this book was mostly swinging on ropes and adventure and killing and other good clean fun.
These two covers are surprisingly similar, yes?
The Titan by Theodore Dreiser
I really enjoyed Dreiser’s other books Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, but didn’t like this one so much. I’m only now learning that this is a sequel to a previous book, which makes me feel kind of stupid. It’s about a man named Cowperwood who wants to become really rich and successful. At the opening of the book, he’s just getting out of the penitentiary for stock exchange fraud or something along that line. His mistress Aileen has been waiting for him. He moves to Chicago, divorces his wife, marries Aileen, and makes a ton of money by hook or by crook buying up the streetcar system and other concerns. The financial/political part was not very appealing to me but that’s just a matter of taste. The one element that was interesting to me was how much homo-eroticism plays into business and finance in this book. All these different men meet Cowperwood and are magnetised by how handsome and charismatic and commanding he is, and they end up supporting him in his schemes. The back of the book promises that his every triumph will become a hollow defeat, but they read as hollow to me all the way through.
Cowperwood cheats on Aileen with a lot of different women, but the one he is really in love with he has known since she was a teen, which is pretty gross. Aileen is angry and decides she will cheat too to get back at Cowperwood and picks out an idle society man. When she invites the man to her house, he date rapes her. They end up “having an affair,” but Cowperwood doesn’t care. Aileen is also disappointed that she’s not a social success. Cowperwood was a pretty unlikeable character.
Even though the Enneagram (a personality typing system) is not really my thing, I couldn’t help seeing Cowperwood as a 3 with a 4 wing (because all he cares about is status and success, but he has an artistic side.) So I kept trying to picture him as David Bowie, a legendary 3 with a 4 wing, to make myself like him more, but it didn’t work. At the end of the book, Aileen slits her wrists and Cowperwood stops her and scolds her. He resolves to avoid her as much as possible in the future and decides that she won’t try again. I feel Dreiser’s female characters are more real and easier to relate to, which is probably why I enjoyed those other two books. So you can imagine how surprised I was to read in the afterword that Cowperwood was very similar to Dreiser himself and that Dreiser’s women characters are “unconvincing.” My other complaint about this book is that there are one million minor characters and they all have funny names. But I have to take my hat off to Dreiser for not being a racist as so many other writers of 1914 are. He has a couple of Jewish characters who speak with an accent, but not offensively so, and they are no more money-grubbing than every other single character in the book.
Booklikes has a really strange search engine. Why would it only link to a copy of this book that has a weird picture on the cover of Dutch men from the wrong century? This is a better cover!
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
This book, the exact opposite of The Titan, was completed in 1910 but published posthumously, as the Irish author died of TB at the age of 40 a year later. It’s an unabashedly socialist novel that follows the lives of a group of English working men. They earn poverty wages and live in constant fear of being unemployed. While a lot of conditions described in the book seem as true of the working poor today as a century ago, the one striking difference is that there was no safety net whatsoever. If the men were out of work for too long, they and their families would literally starve to death, and the only alternative was going to the workhouse, which is not really described in this novel but seems to be feared as an equivalent fate to death. The most harrowing part is when one of men believes he should murder his wife and bright young son and then himself to spare them a worse fate, and is mulling over the best way to do it. That was Stephen King-level horror. There are a lot of long speeches about socialism that are meritorious but boring and I ended up skimming through them. It was mostly this one guy Owen making the speeches, but the other men dismissed him as a nut. I think this book deserves its status as a classic.
Arcadian Adventures With The Idle Rich by Steven Leacock
Satirical short story collection about the lives of the American upper class. I enjoyed this one. I think my favorite story was about a pretend guru who gathers bored rich women to learn his “oriental” wisdom and then makes off with their jewelry. Or maybe it was the one about the great financial genius who turns out to be a country man who knows nothing and just struck it rich by accident and just wishes he could get back to his old home.
The Last War (also known as The World Set Free) by H.G. Wells
The most notable thing about this sf novel is that in 1914 Wells predicted atomic energy and atomic warfare. It’s too bad no one heeded his warning. In fact it seems his ideas inspired the scientists who worked on the atom bomb. This is the only book of 1914 I encountered that admitted the possibility of a war that would kill millions, even as such a war got underway. This book doesn’t have a plot or main characters in a traditional way. It’s a history book from the future, and the first chapter (the “prelude”) covers actual history. The rest of the book covers the development of atomic power which essentially creates free energy that destroys the world economy, and then atomic war destroys all the major cities, killing everyone and leaving a radioactive landscape. However, after that the book becomes remarkably upbeat as the survivors create a world government that unifies the planet. You get snapshots of life from different people throughout the book. Other than a kind of dismissive attitude toward India, this book isn’t even racist. The edition I read had an actually interesting introduction, by Greg Bear, comparing Henry James and Wells, who were frenemies. Bear says that this was the moment when speculative fiction and literary fiction parted ways. Spec fic (along with my bff Arnold Bennett) was dismissed as trying to get people to believe in something and too action/plot oriented. Literary fiction was elevated for being sexless, bloodless, and more about money and people’s inner lives than stuff happening. Bear puts forward the non-dual POV that there’s no reason these two styles had to be opposed to each other. Anyway, I thought it was notable that this was one of the few books of 1914 that has been reprinted by a reputable press with attention paid to the book design—because actual normal humans might want to read this book.
Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man by Sinclair Lewis
This was Sinclair Lewis’ first published book for grown-ups. It was about a milquetoast kind of guy who lives not far from where I grew up in NYC who quits his job and travels to Europe looking for adventure. But he’s actually a pretty bourgeois guy so he doesn’t want too much adventure. He meets a young bohemian woman who seemed just like the kind of unreliable bright young thing you would still meet today. She was probably my favorite part of the book because she was so vivid and realistic. But when Mr. Wrenn gets back to NYC it seems to him that he’d be better off with a more normal young lady—like this nice girl he’s just met. The downfall of this book: racism. I did enjoy it when I read it but it was strangely forgettable. I brought it on a trip with me thinking I hadn’t read it yet and I was dumbfounded when I opened it up and realized I’d just read it a few weeks earlier. But what’s to blame here, the book? Or the lack of cover art? Or my demented mind?
Delia Blanchflower by Mrs. Humphrey Ward
I enjoyed Mrs. Ward’s 1913 offering, but this anti-suffragette novel was hard to take. The eponymous character is a rich, beautiful, and charismatic young woman whose father has just died. But instead of inheriting her fortune outright, she’s been saddled with a guardian/trustee because her dying father correctly believed that she would devote all her money and all her to life to the cause of woman’s suffrage if she had control. Of course the guardian is a magnificent unmarried middle-aged man who is handsome, noble, etc etc, and sparks fly between him and Delia Blanchflower. Delia is under the sway of an unscrupulous older suffragette. They live together and are devoted to each other. Although it’s explained that the older woman only wants Delia’s money for the cause and doesn’t really care about her, she appears to get jealous of the guardian and basically cuts Delia off. There was a lot of stuff about how their group was blowing up mailboxes, which seemed ridiculous to me, but it turns out that suffragettes really did blow up mailboxes. One woman complains about how her former servant was sick and dying and wrote a letter to her, but it was blown up, so the servant died thinking her mistress didn’t care about her. (I learned from this book that the most important part of noblesse oblige is taking care of your servants when they’re sick.)
There are a number of anti-suffrage women role model characters in the book, and also a woman who believe that women should get the vote, but she doesn’t care if it’s in her lifetime or her daughter’s lifetime or neither, and that it’s wrong for women to do anything except patiently wait for the vote. The stuff that these women say makes absolutely no sense and reminds me of the stuff that people say today that makes absolutely no sense. It’s not about content, it’s about being dignified and an upstanding member of society. People just want everything to be comfy and pleasant. Anyway, there’s a beautiful old historic home that the suffragettes want to blow up (I’m assuming this is based on Lloyd George’s home that really was bombed) and in the end even though Delia and her guardian try to prevent it, the wicked suffragette lady sets it on fire, killing a little disabled girl who has no function in this book other than to be sacrificed—and the suffragette lady dies too. Is this book racist? Of course. Here’s a sample line: “From her face and figure the half savage, or Asiatic note, present in the physiognomy and complexions of her brothers and sisters, was entirely absent.”
Personality Plus by Edna Ferber
This was the most disappointing book of 1914 for me. I really loved Roast Beef Medium last year and this is the sequel. But I could tell Edna was just phoning it in. It’s about Emma McChesney’s son going into the advertising industry and triumphing. But you can tell Edna Ferber didn’t know anything about the advertising industry so there’s a curious lack of substance to it. It’s okay, Edna, I still believe in you! I see there’s another sequel next year and I bet that one is going to be great!
Penrod by Booth Tarkington
I read most of this. It’s fairly funny, about a little boy who gets into different scrapes. Think Otis Spofford. But it’s also pervasively racist, with many casual racial epithets for African-Americans, and talk of “Congo man eaters.” I got to a part where Penrod makes friends with three African-American brothers. One has a speech impediment, one is missing a finger, and I forget what was the deal with the third brother. Penrod decides he’s going to open a freak show starring the three brothers. I just couldn’t take it anymore and brought the book back to the library. I think the fact that it’s a children’s book is what makes it the most awful.
Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France
I only made it through a couple chapters of this book before I ran out of time. It seems good so far. No angels have appeared yet. It’s just some family history and a description of a library. Speaking of libraries, this book is not due back at the library for another two weeks so we’ll see how I do.
It’s 1914! What’s happening? If you are the Sakurajima Volcano in Japan, you erupt. If you are Charlie Chaplin, your screen career begins. If you are in the Bronx, you can enjoy green beer for St. Patrick’s day for the first time. If you are sailing on the Komagata Maru from India to Canada, you are denied entry and sent back because Canada doesn’t want Asian immigrants now. If you’re Shackleton, you set sail for Antarctica. If you’re Babe Ruth, you make it to the Majors. If you’re the last known passenger pigeon, you die in the zoo. If you are 687 coal miners in Japan, you are blown up in a terrible gas explosion. If you are a Jehovah’s Witness, you expect the world to end, but it doesn’t! If you’re the USA, you have some sort of misunderstanding with Mexico and invade it for the second time; sign Mother’s Day into existence; open the Federal Reserve; and open the Cape Cod Canal, turning Cape Cod into an island. If you’re Turkey, you massacre Greeks and undergo an earthquake.
If you’re Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it’s time to get assassinated. As I understand it, this is the outcome: Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, Russia supports Serbia, Germany declares war on Russia and its ally France and marches across Belgium, violating its neutrality. The UK declares war on Germany and so does Japan. Turkey declares war on Belgium; Britain and France declare war on Turkey; and the UK annexes Cypress. The House of Commons passes Irish Home Rule, but suspends it for the war, and this specific Act never comes into existence. Britain also declares Egypt its colonial protectorate to keep it on their side in the war. The New York Stock Exchange closes for six months, but the US maintains neutrality for the time being. If you’re at the Battle of Mons or the Battle of the Marne or the Battle of Ypres or a number of other battles, sucks to be you. But the real question is, what are you going to read? Let me tell you, the books of 1914 are not plotted the way the books of 2014 are.
The Laughing Cavalier by Baroness Orczy
The story of one of the ancestors of the Scarlet Pimpernel, set in Holland. I thought it wouldn’t be as good as a regular Scarlet Pimpernel book, but it was top drawer. In this classic adventure tale, the title character, a penniless vagabond with an honorable heart, finds himself in a terrible pickle—he has been hired to kidnap a young woman and at the same time return her to her father. How can he do both and collect both rewards? The twists of the plot were truly delightful. As in Beauty and the Beast, this tale relies on a sexist form of Stockholm Syndrome, where the kidnapped maiden finds herself falling for the man who is keeping her prisoner. Annoyingly, this was very effective, making this book kind of a guilty pleasure. Luckily to reduce my pleasure there was a generous helping of anti-Semitism.
I have taken a sacred vow not to discuss book design, forevermore, but here I have been goaded beyond all possible human endurance. Since all the works of 1914 are in the public domain, they are printed by publishers who realized they can do virtually zero work and reap a tiny reward when fools like me buy the book. So you will find that these books have no front matter, back matter, cover art, writing on the spine, or formatting. They have not been run through spellcheck, and they are in tiny font and have no spaces to separate the chapters (making the book shorter and even cheaper to produce.) I accept all that, but this particular publisher chose to print The Laughing Cavalier in a very unwieldy size of 11 by 8 ½, or letter size. I feel there is no society in our galaxy where these proportions would be considered attractive for a book. And aesthetics aside, it’s very hard to read. It’s like the newspaper that Buster Keaton reads in The High Sign that keeps unfolding bigger and bigger (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyLM-y3O9XY, about 40 seconds in.) So while The Laughing Cavalier was one of the books I enjoyed the most, it was also the hardest to read.
As you can see, the book is roughly the size of a cat.
Maurice by EM Forster
So Forster finished this book in 1914, but it wasn’t published until 1971, after his death, because of its gay content. However I don’t expect to be still reviewing books in 2071 so I thought now would be a good time to say how much I like this book. I read it when I was about 14 (after my mom took me to see the movie) and it made a big impression on me. Now I’m going to spoil the entire plot. Maurice is a middle-class guy who falls in love with an upper-class guy named Clive while he’s in college. But after a few years Clive decides that he’d better marry a woman, and he breaks Maurice’s heart. Maurice tries anti-gay hypnosis therapy but it doesn’t work. Eventually Maurice gets together with a gardener/groundskeeper/something like that named Alec Scudder. It seems at first like they are both too suspicious of the other and have too many class differences to get along, and Alec is going to emigrate to South America. But at the last moment they decide to stay together. I think if you like any of Forster’s other novels, you’d like this one too.
Dubliners by James Joyce
This is one of my all-time favorite short story collections. The stories I like best are “An Encounter,” “Araby,” “Eveline,” “A Little Cloud,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and “The Dead.” I read it when I was fifteen and my mother had to explain “Clay” and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” to me. She also asked me not to read “The Dead” because it was her favorite story and she thought I wouldn’t like it because I was too young. But I did read it and I did like it so everything turned out okay. Two years later we were reading “Araby” in English class and the boy who everyone had bullied for years started behaving strangely and saying that the point of “Araby” was that the main character wasn’t going to take it anymore! (Which is not anything that’s happening in that story.) Then this boy never came back to school again, not even for graduation, and somehow everyone knew that he’d had a mental breakdown and been hospitalized. When I called him two weeks after the “Araby” incident to see if he was okay, he said I was the only person who’d called him. Wait, what, you wanted me to tell you what Dubliners is like rather than go down memory lane? Go read someone else’s 1914 round-up then.
The Price of Love by Arnold Bennett
I know the Bloomsbury crowd was down on Arnold Bennett and no one reads him anymore, but he is my favorite writer of this era. Other writers blow hot and cold but all of his books have been good, and this one was exceptional. This novel has all the emotionality and wide view of life of The Old Wives Tale, but also a cracking good plot. I had no idea what the hell was going to happen next in this book. An elderly lady in Bursely has two nephews to whom she is planning to leave her money, and a new young companion. One of the nephews has a fine character but no social skills or sense of humor. The other is charming and handsome but dishonest and unreliable, and he’s in hot water because he’s embezzled all the petty cash at his job and he knows his boss is planning to look at the books. The elderly lady has dropped a big bundle of money in the house and the dishonest nephew finds it. He tells himself he’s going to give it to his aunt later, but at the same time he’s also planning to take it. Then his aunt falls ill—because she’s realized her money is missing and she’s so upset. While the nephew is looking at the money and thinking things over, the companion bursts in asking him to call for the doctor, so he sticks the money in the first place he thinks of—the grate in the fireplace. Anyway, there were a lot of things in this book that reminded me of The Old Wives Tale, aside from being set in Bursely, like the touching relationship between the elderly aunt and the young companion, who admire each other but also look down on each other. In the middle of a crisis in the early morning, one of the characters sees the lamplighter come down the street and light the lamps and she’s struck by the secret nighttime world, just the way Sam Povey is amazed to see the bakery during his early-morning crisis. And the young companion will marry a complete no-goodnik despite everything people do to try and stop her, just like Sophia Baines. Bennett describes everything so well and gets into people’s minds so thoroughly and sympathetically. I’m bummed because there’s no Bennett book for 1915—apparently he was too busy as wartime Director of Propaganda for France.
Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum
An American girl who is not Dorothy and her mule end up in the section of Oz that is a land of talking flowers. They meet the Shaggy Man, Polychrome, and Tik-Tok and they go on a journey and encounter the Nome King. All the Oz books are good.
Kokoro by Soseki Natsume
This gentle, atmospheric book is more about an existential feeling than it is about plot. It reminded me of Le Grand Meaulnes, and also the story The Judgment by Kafka. I’m going to go ahead and spoil such plot as there is. A university student makes friends with an older man his father’s age, whom he calls Sensei. Sensei is not very demonstrative and likes to keep his personal business to himself. I saw the character Sensei as a very realistic portrayal of a person who has been depressed for a long time, but the young man just sees Sensei as enigmatic and fascinating. It felt to me like the university student was practicing for being in love or making friends with his peers by trying to get close to Sensei, and also looking for a father figure because it turns out his own father is terminally ill. The young man goes home to be with his family. I thought the description of the father’s illness and the varied ways that everyone involved tried to avoid or deny what’s happening was incredibly realistic and timeless and this alone makes this book a masterpiece. However, during his father’s final hours, the young man receives a by-the-time-you-get-this-I-will-be-dead letter from Sensei. He rushes off the to the train station to go to Sensei. The rest of the book is Sensei’s long suicide letter, explaining what happened to him when he was young and why he’s going to end his life. So, when Sensei was a young man, he fell in love with the daughter of the family he was boarding with, but he was completely stalled and unable to declare his love. Then he asked his friend to live in the house too. This man falls in love with the same woman, although it takes Sensei a while to figure this out because no one ever has a straightforward conversation with anyone in this book. But the friend has deep spiritual/philosophical beliefs that involve asceticism and renouncing love, so he feels like a terrible hypocrite. Sensei basically tells his friend, “Yes, you are a terrible hypocrite,” and then immediately asks the young woman’s mother for her daughter’s hand. After the friend finds out, he stabs himself to death in the nighttime. Sensei feels responsible for his friend’s suicide and is wracked with guilt for decades, but he never explains anything to his wife because he doesn’t want to spoil her flowerlike purity. I don’t know if this was cultural, generational, the author’s own life view, or something else, but no one in this book has any get-up-and-go. It’s very hard for the characters to take any actions whatsoever and so they can never solve their problems; they just sink deeper into despond. The one thing they are able to do with great gusto and resolve is die by suicide. According to the introduction, the title of this book means “the heart of things.” I bought this book online, and it arrived with a yellow post-it note recommending further reading, which I found very touching.
The Man Upstairs by PG Wodehouse
All of Wodehouse’s books are funny and will lift your spirits. Consider this the perfect antidote to Kokoro. This one is a collection of short stories. My favorites were “The Man Upstairs,” “Deep Waters” and “Pots O’ Money.” Most of the Wodehouse I’ve read previously has been about parasitic wealthy people (mostly the Jeeves books) and this was the first time I read some stories about starving artists and ordinary people. I slightly prefer reading about the idle rich or about golfers, because it’s so unreal. Seeing charming twists of fate happen to poor characters is in too stark contrast with real life, where that never happens.
Innocent: Her Fancy, His Fact by Marie Corelli
This was by far the most bizarre book I’ve ever read in my life. I honestly don’t even know if I enjoyed it or not but it was a strange, mindblowing experience that I’m glad I had. Innocent is an eighteen year old girl who lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Everyone is trying to get her to marry her handsome, kind, intelligent cousin Robin who is going to inherit the farm, but Innocent doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to marry him. Her head is stuffed with strange fanciful ideas about a family ancestor named Amadis de Jocelyn, and she has grown up reading manuscripts in Old French about him. But on basically his deathbed her father reveals that he is not really her father, that a man on horseback who must have been her biological father gave Innocent to him when she was a baby. The man, Armitage, had sent checks to pay for her keep for many years but then stopped suddenly.
Shortly after Innocent’s father dies, selfish Lady Blythe shows up to tell Innocent that she is her mother who cast her off when she was a baby, but now she wants to adopt Innocent and make her heiress to her money and title, since she never had any other children. But Innocent repudiates her mother, saying if you didn’t want me then, you can’t have me now. 200 pages in, Innocent runs away to London, which has been way overdetermined by this point and I was waiting and waiting for this to happen. On the train she meets a man who happens to have been a friend of her biological father Armitage. Then in the house she takes a room in, by coincidence there’s a big portrait of Armitage on the wall because the lady of the house, Miss Leigh, happens to be his cast-off sweetheart. One year later, Innocent has become the most successful author of her day and is rich. I thought this was just wish fulfilment but when I read about the author I discovered this was stark realism—Innocent’s writing career is just like Marie Corelli’s. Innocent’s publisher tells her this:
“‘You won’t let me call you a brilliant author,’ he said, as he shook hands with her—‘Perhaps it will please you better if I say you are a true woman!’
Her hand flashed up in bright gratitude, —she waved her hand in parting—as the brougham glided off. And never to his dying day did that publisher and man of hard business detail forget the radiance of the face that smiled at him that afternoon, —a face of light and youth and loveliness, as full of hope and faith as the face of a pictured angel kneeling at the feet of the Madonna with heaven’s own glory encircling it in gold.”
Then Innocent meets an unscrupulous painter named Amadis de Jocelyn who is distantly related to the one she is so fevered about, and of course she falls in love with him. But:
“The carnal mind can never comprehend spirituality,—nevertheless Jocelyn was a man cultured and clever enough to feel that though he himself could not enter, and did not even care to enter the uplifted spheres of thought, this strange child with a gift of the gods in her brain, already dwelt in them, serenely unconscious of any lower plane.
“[H]e had not gone to such lengths in his love-affair as could result in what is usually called ‘trouble’ for the girl. He had left her unscathed, save in a moral and spiritual sense.”
Unfortunately Innocent is no match for this debased man. Her dialogue is more like this:
“‘Pleasure for others is the only pleasure possible to me. I assure you I’m quite selfish!—I’m greedy for the happiness of those I love—and if they can’t or won’t be happy I’m perfectly miserable!’”
Meanwhile, Lady Blythe confesses to her husband that before they were married, she had an illegitimate child and it’s very awkward to meet Innocent socially. Lord Blythe is shocked and appalled at the unmotherly conduct of his wife and tells her he must bid her farewell. Lady Blythe goes and accidentally overdoses on Veronal and dies. Lord Blythe doesn’t seem to mind about that, but he feels bad about Innocent, so he goes to her and asks if he can adopt her as his daughter. But she says she wants to be independent and make her own way in the world. Then Lord Blythe discovers that Armitage (Innocent’s biological father) is still alive and living as a hobo painter in Italy, and they make plans for Armitage to return to England and legally acknowledge Innocent as his child.
However, meanwhile Jocelyn the painter has cruelly dumped Innocent. Going out of her mind with heartbreak, she somehow makes her way back to the farm where she was raised, in the midst of a terrible storm. Robin and the faithful servant find her raving and confused and put her to bed. In the middle of the night, Innocent wakes up, her mind clear, and tells Robin that now she wants to marry him. He spends a sleepless night wondering whether that will be good for her or not. But in the morning he finds her stone dead!
The book ends by saying that Lord Blythe, Armitage, and Miss Leigh
“made a trio of friends,—a compact of affection and true devotion such as is seldom known in this work-a-day world. They were nearly always together, —and the memory of Innocent, with her young life’s little struggle against fate ending so soon in disaster, was a link never to be broken save by death, which breaks all.”
As weird as this book was, it was nothing on what I learned about the author in Wikipedia. I was most surprised to learn that Corelli was the inspiration for both EF Benson’s Lucia and Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel.
Arundel by EF Benson
The title makes you think it is set in Norway, but actually the first two chapters take place in India and the rest in England. All the parts of this book that were comic were excellent, but the romantic and tragic elements were strange. I’m going to spoil the whole plot now. The main character, Elizabeth, is a high-spirited Anglo-Indian girl who is sent to spend a season with her aunt in England. Her aunt is a very selfish lady who loves to be comfortable, a very funny character. The town they live in is like Tilling in the Lucia books (and the name of the aunt’s house is Arundel, so that’s why the book is called that.) Gerald, who lives next door, has waited for love his whole life but not encountered it, so he decides to get realistic and propose to the aunt’s daughter Edith, because he likes her and thinks they’ll get along. We get a funny bit where the aunt thinks she’s being incredibly generous but won’t settle any money on her daughter; it’s very Jane Austenish. Unfortunately, immediately after the engagement, Elizabeth shows up and she and Gerald fall violently in love. It’s hard to stay sympathetic to them because they keep saying that all they care about is Edith and doing the right thing by her, but then somehow against their will they end up kissing and sending love letters etc. Edith is no dummy and demands to know what’s going on. Because of their high moral principles, they lie to Edith. Elizabeth has written to her father asking him to send a telegram urging her to come home on some pretext, so that she can get out of the situation. But when the telegram comes, it turns out that her father has died, and that part is genuinely sad. A year or so goes by, and Elizabeth is one of those lucky people who feels that the person who died is still there as much as ever and she can commune with him. Meanwhile, Edith is pregnant but desperately unhappy because she knows her husband doesn’t really love her. When she sees Elizabeth, Edith starts to demand whether Elizabeth loves Gerald, but before Edith can get all the words out of her mouth she falls down ill and subsequently dies, the end. Oh, EF Benson, I can’t wait until you figure out that you need to be writing comedy.
Miss Billy Married by Eleanor H. Porter
The entire first page of this book was the Christian wedding vows I think we are all pretty familiar with. That was a bad sign, and it didn’t get better. This novel was the sequel to a previous book (or books?) where the couple were star-crossed lovers but now they’re married. It was a lot of sentimental hogwash where different kinds of jealousies caused by never talking to each other almost drove the couple apart but they managed to stay together. There were a lot of self-sacrificing people, and a little disabled child who made people cry because he was so full of joy.
We all understand that “Best of 2014” book lists are a joke because no one has read them all. This is MY joke. I don’t read that much anymore, so I guess that just makes the joke funnier. As ever, I will come clean about any nepotism and intrigue that affected my choice. New feature for this year: I will crown one winner in each category, because that’s kind of fun.
Fiction (for grown-ups)
(The actual best novel of 2014 was DEVOTED LADIES by Lev Olsen, as yet unpublished so ineligible. Nepotism/intrigue level: This author is both richly deserving and my brother.)
The winner!: Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones.
In LGBTQ small press publishing, the author usually has to write her own back cover copy, as I know to my sorrow. You can be great at writing books but suck at writing back cover copy. But I haven’t really seen the reverse, so usually if I love the back cover copy of a small press queer book, I will love the book. That was the main reason I bought this book. Plus, frittering away my life watching Rose of Versailles has made me really enjoy stories about female swordfighters. This novel exponentially exceeded my modest expectations. It’s an incredibly compelling and well-written fantasy novel set in a mythical European country. I think this was some of the best worldbuilding I’ve ever encountered. It’s a world where there’s magic but, very realistically, exactly how the magic works is not that well understood and most people don’t really care because their minds are on other stuff. One of the book’s two heroines consults some ancient texts by an expert on the magic, and the information was so richly detailed and convincing that I actually wondered if this was a real historical figure. I thought this novel also dealt very nicely with some common problems in lesbian historical fiction (see, that’s what it read like, even though it was fantasy), such as having a realistic happy ending in a homophobic society, and also dealing with the lovers-pretending-to-be-mistress-and-servant trope. If you are looking for a lesbian Patrick O’Brian-esque fantasy novel, which I would have looked for had I ever dreamed such a thing was possible, this is it. Whatever Heather Rose Jones writes next, I want it.
Defenders by Will McIntosh.
No one element of this story is original—the earth is overrun by hostile aliens; humans invent a secret weapon to overthrow the aliens; will the secret weapon turn against the humans? But as a whole the story is incredibly original and exciting and thought-provoking.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue.
A queer historical novel set in 1876 San Francisco about a burlesque dancer whose baby is taken from her and a woman who wears men’s clothes at a time when this was an arrestable offense. Then there’s a murder. This was a little quieter than some of Emma Donoghue’s other books and when I was done I was comparing it unfavorably in my head to my favorite of hers, Life Mask. But the story stuck with me and I keep thinking about it, so I’m realizing this book was actually pretty great.
What else was I reading?
Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. Fifth in a series about a London police detective who investigates magical crimes.
Revival by Stephen King. After a family tragedy, a small-town Christian preacher turns into a sinister miracle worker on a quest to see what’s on the other side of death. I really love Stephen King, but he’s written a squillion books, so some of them have to be better than others, and this is one of the lesser ones.
The winner!: Show Trans by Eliott DeLine
My fave book published in 2014 overall, no contest. I wrote a review here of this non-fiction novel about navigating the world as a transgender person with a rich inner life. There’s a lot going on in this book and I think you would like it, whoever you are.
Nepotism/intrigue Level: Extremely low. I know this writer a little bit, but I think this doesn’t count because I liked his books first and met him second because of that.
Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon
Before I read this, I read another book each by Coyote and Spoon. Told from alternating POVS, Gender Failure is a a two-person memoir bout retiring from or messing with the gender binary. I really liked it and I would recommend it to to, oh, anyone. I actually did tell my girlfriend she should read it, and I have an iron-clad rule of never ever recommending books to her.
Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet by Jenifer Ringer.
Jenifer Ringer was one of my favorite dancers at NYCB until her recent retirement, so it’s no surprise that I loved her memoir. I thought it was also a powerful protrayal of having an eating disorder and recovery. And I liked reading about her partner James Fayette.
Bowie by Simon Critchley
I wrote a review here. I love David Bowie and books about David Bowie, especially if they talk about narrative identity and where creativity comes from.
A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez
A queer Cuban/Colombian memoir that delves into Santería, identity, sexuality, money, class, debt, language and intersectionality.
In My Skin: My Life On And Off the Basketball Court by Britney Griner
I don’t even really follow basketball, I just think Britney Griner is good looking and I like reading about basketball (more than I like watching it.) Written in a very conversational style, it’s an interesting story about coming out as gay while an elite athlete at a homophobic college. The only drawback to this book is that Griner is still very young, and so a lot of threads, like her relationship with her father, obviously seem unfinished.
Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders by Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall
A transgender transition memoir, but told in alternating chapters by both Jacob, a transgender man, and Diane, his wife of many years. Jacob had been a forest ranger and identified as a woman, but then after a career-ending accident began to identify as a man. Diane was very supportive and basically was one step ahead of Jacob the whole time. I enjoyed the dual point of view and the plain-spoken, straightforward style. Overall these were two very relatable people who described their experiences in a gripping way, which is not that surprising considering they were already professional writers (who co-write a series about a blind lesbian detective.) My favorite part of the book had almost nothing to do with gender or transition, though. It was about their quest to have kids and it involved clawing a used condom out of the garbage and then later being foster parents in a very strict program for kids who are juvenile sex offenders. There were things Jacob and Diane had never told each other until they wrote this book together, which made it exciting, but also sometimes repetitive.
Nepotism/intrigue: They have the same publisher as me but I don’t know them at all so there’s no story here.
Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by A.K. Summers. A graphic memoir (i.e. it’s drawn, as in comics and graphic novels, but it’s a memoir. Not graphic as in “scary” or “lots of sex.”) Exactly what it says on the tin, about a pregnant butch lesbian. Cool art, with a bit of a Tintin theme. Keeping it real about having babies. But a smidge of the dark side you encounter from some people who say they are radical feminists.
Young Adult/Middle Grade
The winner! Legacy of the Claw (Animas #1) by C.R. Grey
Everyone has an Animas bond with an animal species... except for Bailey. How will he hide his affliction at his elite boarding school? And what is his involvement in a prophecy of revolution? This awesome steampunk-y middle grade story is told in a fresh and original way and its greatest strength is the luxuriant imagery and description.
Nepotism/intrigue: Ding ding ding, very high! This is my friend Cate’s first published novel! Way to go, Cate!
Just Girls by Rachel Gold
I wrote a long review of this book. I used to be a really strong believer in Toni Morrison’s quotation, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Then by coincidence in 2014, both Rachel Gold and I happened to write YA/New Adult novels with a transgender main character and a lesbian romance that is also about same-gender dating violence. You know, that tired old thing again. Now I’m a believer in a new quotation, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, sit back and put up your feet and eat some pistachio nuts and let Rachel Gold write it because she’ll do a better job.”
Nepotism/intrigue: I emailed with this writer once or something because it’s a small small world, but I do not think this tenuous relationship has influenced me.
Speaking of tired old things again! May I point out two other great YA novels of 2014 that sound from their (oversimplified) descriptions as though they are the same, but are actually wildly different?
Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Nolan has a seizure disorder, which causes him to be pulled into another world, where he lives life as Amara, a girl with an exciting and important destiny.
Nepotism/intrigue: I have followed this writer’s career with considerable interest since we were both in the Outer Alliance group (a SF/F writers group advocating for the inclusion of LGBT issues) and I was really pleased when she placed this book with a big house, but I don’t know her, so disappointingly once again there’s nothing to see here.
The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon
Jack has a seizure disorder, which causes him to be pulled into another world, where he lives life as Jacqueline, a girl with an exciting and important destiny.
Pointe by Brandi Colbert
Theo is an talented African-American ballet dancer, but when her childhood best friend returns home after being kidnapped years ago, it brings bad memories back to the surface. Trigger warning for sexual abuse and an eating disorder.
Changers Book One: Drew by T Cooper and Allison Glock
Ethan discovers he is part of an ancient race of humans called Changers, destined to switch bodies four times before discovering which is his true identity, and he becomes a short girl named Drew, but luckily Drew still knows how to play the drums
This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
This is a graphic novel, I’m not sure it’s even YA. A quiet, gorgeously illustrated story of two friends during the summer when they’re on a knife’s edge between childhood and puberty.
Everything Leads To You by Nina LaCour
Short review here. A pleasing story of a talented girl who falls for a girl who turns out to be the grandchild of Hollywood royalty.
Guardian by Alex London
Last year I was raving about the first book in the series. I got halfway through this one but then put it down to turn my attention to the books of 1914. I’ve noticed that I often most enjoy the first book in a series that’s set in a horrible dystopia, and then in the second book where it turns out the rebels aren’t that great either I sort of lose interest, and then by the third book which is a total bloodbath I’m bored. I think this says more about me than about Alex London who is a stellar writer. I am going to finish this book, and for all I know, the third book is not going to be a total bloodbath after all. I even started writing a trilogy following this very formula and then lost interest in my own series after the first book.