The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

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The Last Bell

Pushkin Press continues to do sterling work by retranslating and republishing European fiction with Johannes Urzidil’s The Last Bell (translated by David Burnett). The Last Bell includes five stories by a mid-century Czech author who got lost in the shuffle of history. In these stories, Urzidil writes about life in Prague in the late 1930s (before he himself fled Europe) and in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I.

The first story is the eponymous “The Last Bell,” my favorite story in the collection. The story opens with housekeeper Marška being left in charge of her employers’ apartment for the foreseeable future. The master and missus are Jewish and the Germans are on their way. So, Marška decides to live it up on their wealth with her sister in the luxury apartment. Things go well, until the sisters start to fraternize with their new Nazi occupiers. The story starts with pathos but takes a completely different tone of horror by the end.

Another stand out story is “The Duchess of Albanera,” in which a lonely bank manager steals a famous painting. The bank manager keeps the Duchess in an armoire and talks to her. Meanwhile, his acquaintances notice the slight changes in his routine and wonder what’s going on. What makes the story interesting is that the Duchess talks back to the bank manager, questioning him about his ideals of women and reminding him that reality is usually a lot more sordid than his imaginings.

The other three stories feel less polished than “The Last Bell” and “The Duchess of Albanera.” Thought it might be because Urzidil’s style grew less concrete and more experimental and impressionistic over time. The last three stories feel like drifting through time and space; they could have been set almost anywhere and any-when. That said, the stories of The Last Bell offer an interesting peek into a vanished European world.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley

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Parnassus on Wheels

Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheelis a delightful novella about two oddballs who fall in love over books and light adventure in the early twentieth century. It’s a perfect book for bibliophiles, especially if they want something that has a happy ending (unlike my beloved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry).

Spinster Helen McGill is fed up to the teeth with her writer brother’s peripatetic ways—and with being treated like his servant. So when Roger Mifflin rolls up in his mobile bookstore, Parnassus on Wheels, it seems like the perfect chance to have a bit of adventure to Helen. She writes out a check for $400 and buys Mifflin out, thinking to sell the bookstore on when she’s done with it. Mifflin accompanies her to help her learn the ropes, though it’s clear early on that both have lived very solitary lives and are lonely. All through the book are Mifflin’s monologues about the magic of literature. Mifflin is an evangelist for the written word.

The adventures start when Helen’s brother returns from his latest walkabout and starts making trouble, thinking that Helen has been tricked out of her money. After that, it’s one scrape after another for the odd couple. They face hobos, lost horseshoes, money troubles, weather, and more.Though he plans to leave Helen to her journey, Mifflin never quite gets around to it and is always popping up just in time to help. If the love of literature wasn’t enough to hook me, I would have enjoyed this book about two weirdos finding one another when they thought they couldn’t meet someone who would look past their outside appearances and eccentricities.

Parnassus on Wheels is a joy to read.

This book is freely available from Project Gutenberg.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Thomas Schiff traveled around the world to take beautiful panoramic photos of libraries. (The Guardian)
  • Sean Braswell wonders if von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther might be the deadliest book ever written. (ZY)
  • Lyndsay Faye’s article suggests that the difference between pastiche and fan fiction is a lot like the difference between pornography and erotica. (It’s pastiche or erotica if read it, otherwise it’s fan fiction or pornography.) (LitHub)
  • Lorraine Berry remembers when she met a man who doesn’t read books by women. (Signature)
  • Political Corner
    • Ashley Bowen-Murphy discusses what might happen to our bookish world if we don’t fight for the NEA and the NEHthe NEA and the NEH. (Book Riot)
    • Even if he weren’t one of my favorite authors, I would love Neil Gaiman for his defence of libraries. (The Guardian)
    • Please consider signing this Every Library letter to support PBS, NEA, NEH, and IMLS (the museum and libraries fund) to your Congressional representatives. (Every Library)

In praise of…the mystery novelist

I recently finished the first two books in the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock and Last Seen WearingI enjoyed the first—the second, not so much. Thinking about my very different reactions to these books got me to thinking about how mystery writers construct their stories. While every genre has its own particular challenges in addition to just creating a solid, interesting story, I feel for the mystery writer.

0427b07704c11bdd71fb2adedb14f4e2First, there’s the plot. To write a really good mystery, a writer has to construct a plausible crime. It has to make sense once a reader has gotten to the end and read the solution. But, it can’t be predictable (unless you’re writing a whydunit instead of a whodunit). Predictability is a killer. Plus, I’ve also noticed an escalation in crime plots since their early days in the mid-1800s. Writers have to out-do what’s come before in terms of deviousness, gore, or something more. All this would be hard enough if it weren’t the wrinkle that, once a reader knows the solution to the mystery, they’re not likely to re-read the book unless there’s more to the book than just the puzzle.

The first two Inspector Morse novels highlight these challenges. In both novels, the mysteries are fiendishly complicated. Because Morse creates wild theories based on very little evidence, one is left with multiple possible solutions. There’s enough evidence that it’s all just plausible enough. I like puzzles, but I was left a bit unsatisfied, especially with Last Seen Wearing. The endings didn’t quite work for me. There was too much of an effort at being clever.

Second, there’s the detective. A good detective can keep readers coming back for new instalments. The genre has seen the savant (Holmes), the world worn (Harry Hole, from Jo Nesbø), the disillusioned (Philip Marlowe, by Dashiell Hammet), the humorous (Stephanie Plum, by Janet Evanovich) and the pain in the ass (Inspector Morse, from Colin Dexter). But if the character swings too far into cliché, then readers are less likely to bond with the character and carry on with new novels. Because pacing is so important to mysteries, it must be tempting to rely on genre shorthand to build character—which leads straight into clichés. It’s a delicate balance between taking time to develop the character and keeping the reader turning the pages.

My biggest problem with these two books by Dexter is Morse himself. While I rather enjoyed being in his head as his brain made all sorts of outrageous leaps. I’ve never read any detective novel quite like it; Dexter was almost writing stream-of-consciousness at times. But, I was also privy to all of Morse’s lecherous thoughts about nearly every woman he encountered in the course of his investigations. The books were published in the 1970s, but I can’t excuse the sexism. I stayed for the solutions, but I don’t want to spend anymore in that head.

Even if these particular books didn’t thrill me, mysteries have been some of the most enjoyable books I’ve read. The little gears in my head whirl while I try to figure it out before the detective. There is so much to think about, especially when the author uses an unreliable narrator. They’re great mental palate cleansers after a heavy, literary read.

Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Hex

The people of Black Spring, New York are cursed. It’s not really their fault. They were just unlucky enough to be born there or buy a house there. The curse is Katherine van Wyler, a woman accused of being a witch who still haunts Black Spring three hundred plus years later. In Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, we learn how the Black Spring folk cope with their witch and keep her secret from the world. We also learn how a town can, if pushed down the wrong road hard enough, tear itself apart.

It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s wrong with Black Spring—what takes longer is why it’s all going wrong now. The first chapters are filled with characters dropping bits of history about their town. Katherine van Wyler was executed as a witch and carried on haunting the area as it changed hands from the Dutch to the English. Her whisperings caused people to do terrible things, so a group of clergymen sewed her eyes and mouth shut and wrapped her in iron chains. Still, the people of Black Spring and their military guardians can’t leave her alone. Everyone is terrified of her and fascinated with her.

The plot of Hex starts to take off as Tyler Grant and his friends begin to experiment on Katherine. They figure that if they can work out how Katherine works, they can lift their town’s isolation from the rest of the world. They just have to work out how Katherine’s power keeps them from leaving, then they can get the town to lift it’s Emergency Decree. Unfortunately for Tyler, his friends, and the town, their experiments kick of a series of terrible events that drive the town berserk.

We watch all of this happen from the perspective of Tyler’s father, Steve, and one of the town watchers, Robert Grim. Compared to the obsession and superstition of the other characters, Steve and Robert appear as the lone voices of reason. Watching Black Spring and Katherine through their eyes creates a tense sense of helplessness and dread because none of us—reader or narrators—can do anything about it.

What interested me most about this book is the way the characters and the plot revolve around questions of sacrifice. Early in the book, the Grant boys pester their parents by asking hypothetical questions about who they would save if it really came down to it. This echoes Katherine’s original choice of (maybe) resurrecting her son and revealing herself to be a witch (maybe). Over and over, characters have to face agonizing decisions. And, over and over, characters are left to castigate themselves for those choices.

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Hex since I first heard about it weeks ago from Liberty Hardy at Book Riot. It absolutely lives up to its reputation as a first rate horror novel. I haven’t told all about this book in this review, so readers who are tempted will find all sorts of questions and things to think about after finishing this book.

The Zoo, by Isobel Charman

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The Zoo

Reader, I skimmed this book. Isobel Charman’s The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo, 1826-1851 is the kind of historical writing that I loathe, unfortunately. While Charman did her homework by digging through the archives of the Zoological Society of London, she writes this history as though it’s a novel, full of little vignettes of city life and the thoughts and emotions of the men who created London Zoo. The Zoo’s history is, on its own, interesting enough to sustain my interest. That’s what I wanted. So I skimmed to get the historical details and ignored what I saw as filler.

London Zoo was founded by the Zoological Society in 1826, though it took a couple years for the Society to acquire land, build the essential enclosures and buildings, and gather animals from around the world. For its first few decades, the Zoo was only open to Society members (which included Charles Darwin) and people who had permission from members plus a shilling. Still, the Zoo attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially when they had just put a particularly exotic animal on display.

Charman makes it clear that, in spite of the Society members’ collective erudition, they were woefully ignorant about taking care of their menagerie. The visitors treated the Zoo as a spectacle. Vendors sold food (cakes and such) that the visitors would feed the animals—which made the poor creatures sick. At one point, the keepers had to post a sign asking the ladies not to poke or hit the animals with their parasols. This is nothing compared to the appalling veterinary care and inadequate habitats. The veterinarians, Charles Spooner and William Youatt, tended to treat the animals’ illnesses and injuries the way doctors would human maladies: with lots and lots of mercury in the form of calomel. Spooner and Youatt were firm believers in the power of purgatives. Each chapter contains litanies of the animals who regularly died, especially during the winter.

I am fortunate enough to live near Hogle Zoo, a lovely zoo that I visit several times a year. As I read The Zoo, I couldn’t help but compare Hogle Zoo’s enormous enclosures, heavily supervised human-animal encounters, and dedicated, knowledgeable staff to those of the early London Zoo. The difference that almost two centuries has made in zoo keeping is night and day. Zoos today have to make accommodations for space, but their staff do their best to keep the animals happy and healthy; entertaining human visitors is really just a way to fund conservation efforts.

In spite of its stylistic problems, The Zoo does offer a lot of food for thought when it comes to animal welfare and scientific discovery. My impression of the Society members having read this book is that their arrogance and confidence in their own methods and objectives constantly got in the way of their ability to feel empathy for the thousands of animals that lived (and often died) at London Zoo. Two hundred years later, we know so much more about these animals and their needs. (We also know that mercury cures nothing and will kill anything sooner rather than later.) It would just take time to observe and learn from the animals, rather than forcing the animals to adapt to life in a spectacle.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017. 

This week on the bookish internet

  • Loganberry Books in Cleveland is doing something very clever for Women’s History Month. They’ve worked out a way to make you notice the women authors first. (Huffington Post)
  • Emily Temple ranks the best and worst literary muses. (LitHub)
    • On a side note, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox was the most brilliant novel about muses and writing I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it, especially if you like books that will mess you up.
  • Scholars at the British Library think Jane Austen might have died from arsenic poisoning. Posthumous forensics is mostly pointless, but it sure is interesting. (New York Times)
  • Speaking of the British Library…on their Medieval Manuscripts blog, they’ve rounded up some of the oldest known works by women scribes. (Medieval Manuscripts Blog)
  • The book sniffing may have gone too far. Randy Kennedy writes about a library that has turned into a smell exhibit. (New York Times)
  • Sarah Laskow writes about why librarians find books by “anonymous” to be a pain in the tuchus. (Atlas Obscura)

Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Long Black Veil

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil begins like many other “awful thing happens to a group of friends”stories, but it quickly becomes more complicated—and more affecting. We are told at the beginning that some of the friends will die. What we don’t know until much later is why everything happened the way it did. While we have the mystery to sort out, Finney Boylan also gives us a moving portrait of a trans woman who wrestles with the long shadow of her past.

Long Black Veil moves back and forth in time from 1980, when the awful thing happened, to the later 1980s to 2015. The awful thing is the death of one of the friends when they get locked inside the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. No body is found (not until 2015), so the friend is only missing officially. The night at the Penitentiary breaks up the friends, who drift through the next 35 years. The chapters change perspective from one friend to another, so we get to see how the death has arrested their development into adulthood. They can function, but it’s clear that none of them is living the life they wanted—with one exception.

The exception is Judith. Judith was born in a male body before transitioning in the late 1980s. She hasn’t told her husband or her adopted son anything about her past in the sixteen years they’ve been a family; the men have told her they don’t want to know. There are some small marital spats, but Judith is very much content with her life. To be honest, I was much more interested in her character than in some of the others because I wanted to see how Finney Boylan would depict someone who didn’t feel right in the body they were born in.

The mystery part of Long Black Veil gives some added tension to the whole, but I think I might have been happy with just Judith’s story on its own. That said, when the literary and mystery parts of the novel start to converge again at the end of the book, I liked how the narratives asked the same question in two different ways. The question, of course, is how do you make amends for the past? In Judith’s case, it was her initial disappearance and starting her life over without telling anyone. In the case of the rest of the characters, it’s owning up to what really happened to their friend that night at the Penitentiary.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Long Black Veil in spite of some clumsiness with the disparate genre elements. What made this book so engrossing was the psychological portrait of Judith as she becomes the person she always was on the inside.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 April 2017.

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys

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Winter Tide

Though I haven’t read any of his stories myself, I can understand why Lovecraft‘s Cthulu mythos appeals to other writers. It’s so sprawling that one writer, even if they lived to ripe old age, wouldn’t have enough time to tell all of the stories. It’s also got problems with inclusivity, enough that writers like Victor LaValle and Matt Haig have staked a claim on the mythos for African Americans. In Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys has done something similar for women and LGBTQ people.

In 1928, Aphra Marsh was taken, along with all of the inhabitants of Innsmouth, into the American desert in the mistaken belief that they were unnatural monsters. In truth, Aphra and her family are just another kind of human. By the time we meet her, Aphra has managed to rebuild her life on the west coast and is trying to put the past behind her as much as possible. Unfortunately, her knowledge of her family’s lore and magic make her the perfect agent to investigate FBI agent Ron Spector’s latest case. Even more unfortunately for Aphra, the case will take her back to Massachusetts and old wounds.

Winter Tide is a meandering tale, which is fitting considering that the main character is tied to water by nature. The beginning of the book makes one feel a bit of urgency, but the plot takes its time. The case offers a bit of structure while Aphra takes on more magical students, reconnects with family, thwarts and is thwarted by various plots, tangles with creatures beyond space and time, and more. This is very much a book to sink into rather than be carried away by—unless you’re a geek like me who really digs reading about the strange books of Miskatonic University. To enjoy this book, one has to go with the flow.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • The Mackenzie and Harris Type Foundry is probably the only kind of hot metal I would actually travel to see. (Atlas Obscura)
  • Jan Rosenberg is a strange bookish phenomena; she can actually get to the end of her to-read list. (Book Riot)
  • Lynn Neary reports on a new literary profession: sensitivity reader. (NPR)
  • Ellie Broughton ponders the popularity of lit-bots on Twitter. (LitHub)
  • Elizabeth Allen rounds up fourteen people you inevitably meet (but didn’t want to) at book groups. (Book Riot)
  • Eman Quotah has a thing or two to say about publishers who suddenly want to publish Muslim voices. (The Establishment)