Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

As always, Philip K. Dick makes the reader question the nature of existence. What is real? Do alternate realities co-exist with perceived reality? Are we lost in our dreams? Are we lost in someone else's dream? Are we lost in a drug-induced nightmare?

Although this Dick novel is one of his most honored (nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and winner of the John W. Campbell Award), to my mind it is the least effective of his major works.

The premise is intriguing: World-famous singer and talk show host Jason Taverner awakes one morning to a reality where nobody knows his name--not his agent, not his girl friend, not even the police data bank which tracks everybody, everywhere. The world seems the same, but he is suddenly cast adrift as a non-person with no proof of his existence.

However, the enticing premise is never fully explored. What follows is a rather rambling narrative of a series of encounters by Taverner with women to whom he turns for help and of his more crucial experiences with the Police General and his bi-sexual sister. The solution to the mystery of Taverner's experience is eventually given, but it is rather far-fetched and entirely anti-climactic.

Along the way we have enticing glimpses of a claustrophobic police state following a second Civil War, but details are just dropped and not explored as to their effects.

Altogether, it seems to me that Dick probably wrote this novel without a clear focus or plan, in a stream-of-consciousness manner. It is perhaps revealing that the most effectively written portion of the novel is the account of a mescaline-induced hallucinatory experience.

Despite expectations, perhaps, the novel is often quite humorous in its ironic asides, and it often supplies impressive paranoic quotes, such as the following: "...don't come to the attention of the authorities. Don't ever interest us. Don't make us want to know more about you."

I believe that is good advice, in any reality.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Last month I read and reviewed Anne Bronte's first novel, Agnes Grey, and remarked that her relative lack of fame was deserved, as I found that novel to be dull as to plot, with an insufferably whiny and preachy heroine. Now I must revise my opinion of the third Bronte sister. This, her second (and last) novel, places her fully on the same literary level as her more famous sisters.

While Charlotte's Jane Eyre, and Emily's Wuthering Heights both contained elements of the Romantic and the Gothic, Anne's Tenant is notable for its realism in picturing degenerate behavior and the oppression of a patriarchal society which stripped women of all rights, even as regards to their children.

Anne's heroine, Helen, marries the handsome and charming Arthur Huntingdon despite the warnings from her prudent aunt, even knowing that he has a reputation for a bit of bad behavior. Like many a young girl before and since, she is seduced by his bad-boy sex appeal and believes she can reform him through her love. And like many a young girl before and since, she soon finds out that love is not enough to correct a spoiled young man's selfishness and lack of concern for others or for common morality.

Helen's life becomes a constant struggle as she tries to influence her husband for the good while he indulges in drunkenness and debauchery. She tries sweet appeals; she tries reasoning; she tries upbraiding; she tries preaching. Things just get worse. Then Huntingdon begins "making a man" of their young son. He and his carousing friends encourage the 5-year-old "to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr. Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man, and sent Mama to the devil when she tried to prevent him." She also finds that she is expected to tolerate her husband's adultery.

A young woman in this situation today would have more options than Helen had; at that time she would not be allowed to divorce, would not be entitled to any money or property of her own, and would not even have custody of children if she left her husband. How brave, and how desperate, she is when she runs away.

The scenes in the novel centering on Huntingdon and his group of friends are chilling in their realism. Sadly enough, Anne had more than enough real-life example of such behavior through observing the alcohol and drug-fueled degeneration of her brother Branwell. Her experiences as a governess also contributed to the realism, particularly as to the common practices of rearing male children to be self-centered and brutish.

When it was published, this novel garnered much praise, but also much criticism for its realistic portrayal of degenerate behavior. Some considered it exaggerated for the effect of sensationalism. Anne's sister Charlotte, for whatever reason, blocked further publication of the novel after Anne's death, saying that the novel, "...hardly seems to me desirable to preserve...the choice of subject in that work is a mistake." Perhaps she was wary of revealing so much of her brother's behavior; perhaps she was really shocked at some of the realism; perhaps she was just jealous of her sister's talents.

Today's reader may find the heroine to be a bit moralistic and goody-good, but Anne's stated goal was "to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it." This novel is the truth as she knew it. It is a truth which endures, and women today would do well to take lessens.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

This novel was written by a college professor with a PhD in scientific and medical history who had specialized in the research of alchemy. The couple of reviews I read were full of praise, and the book was a bestseller in 2011. I expected a serious novel about magic with a historical background. What I read, however, was a spectacularly silly romance novel in the tradition of the Twilight series, with the lovers being a powerful witch who is a PhD historian writing a paper on alchemy and an alpha vampire who is so drop-dead gorgeous that he turns heads wherever he goes. (Witches and vampires are traditional enemies, wouldn't you know it.) We also have daemons, a third non-human species. And a house that adds rooms when guests are coming. And a band of vampire knights of medieval origin who fight for the right. And the goddess Diana. And time travel. Sorry, no werewolves.

The novel begins in a promising fashion as the heroine researches ancient alchemical manuscripts, including explanations of how to interpret the drawings and text to reveal the alchemists' understanding of science. But then she requests a volume while at Oxford's Bodleian Library which her witchy senses tell her has been enchanted. Since she has relinquished the practice of magic (long story), she sends it back to the stacks.

Very soon the vampire hero shows up, along with a whole library full of witches, vampires, and daemons. They all want the manuscript, which has been presumed to have been lost, and they think she still has it. The powerful vampire steps up to protect her from the rest, and, rather illogically, she trusts him and soon falls totally in love.

From that point on, this is a trite romance novel combined with periodic episodes of witch versus witch, vampire versus vampire, and witch versus vampire conflict, often with bloody results.

Many questions arise in the mind of a reader:
*Will the vampire lover succumb to instinct and bite the witch? Will his friends and family members bite the witch?
*What do you feed a vampire for dinner? For the inquiring minds who want to know it's raw meat and nuts and wine, always bottles and bottles of wine.
*Will the vampire ever sexually consummate his union with the witch? Although she invites him to on several occasions, he asks her to wait and instead they indulge in some heavy petting, like teenagers in a parked car.
*How do you know when a witch has had a sexual climax? Believe me, you will know.
*Why would a centuries-old vampire decide to be a servant who cooks all the meals and makes the beds and lights the fires and candles and prepares the tasty picnic lunches?
*Vampires call those they have "made" (in the traditional vampire blood-sucking way) their children. If he "makes" her, will the witch become the vampire's child, as well as his wife? That's kinky.

About half way through the novel, I began to suspect that author Harkness was having us on. I can't believe an educated historian could seriously write such dialogue as this: "I would rather have had one moment with you--just this one night--than centuries with someone else," and "I'm not worried you're going to eat me for dinner...." Is it possible she intended a spoof which most took seriously? I know I laughed frequently.

I guess this is a step up from Twilight and the rest, because it does provide some interesting historical information, but for the most part it is just silly.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

An Angela Carter book is akin to a dream, where the everyday and ordinary can seamlessly slide into the surreal and fantastical, and sometimes into the nightmarish. And as in a dream, every detail is likely to have a symbolic meaning, often sexual in nature.

On the surface, this novel is a coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old girl. The novel begins when Melanie, clad in her mother's white wedding dress, is locked out of her home in the middle of the night and sheds her garments, which have become blood stained, to climb an apple tree into her bedroom. The next morning her childish life ends forever when she learns her parents have died in a plane crash. The symbolic picture of loss of innocence is obvious (perhaps even too explicit).

Melanie and her two younger siblings are sent to live with their maternal uncle, who makes toys and has a toyshop. There she meets her uncle's wife Margaret and Margaret's two brothers, and learns that her uncle is a brutal tyrant, who is perhaps more than a little mad. This, of course, all sounds like many, many folk tales and fairy stories and even modern novels--the orphaned children mistreated by a bad uncle, stepmother, stepfather, and so forth. But this is a fairy tale with a bite, similar to those of the Brothers Grimm. The magic of this toyshop is not good magic.

Myth and symbolism and allegory and our collective unconscious all come together in this remarkable novel, as in others by Angela Carter. The language is lush, perhaps too much so in this one, at times, but the totality is overwhelming.

My only criticism of the novel would be that some of the ending events seem contrived and illogical, with no previous hints of a major plot development. But perhaps I just missed the hints. I will read the book again.

For those who enjoy magic realism, the Gothic, and the just plain surreal, this novel is a treat. I also recommend Carter's Nights at the Circus, one of the best books ever.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Honesty and the Golden Rule have been abandoned in favor of dishonesty and greed. Financiers make huge fortunes in questionable schemes, ruining others in the process. The rich buy their way into political positions. Old values have given way to the new morality of every man for himself, regardless of others. That's "the way we live now."

Despite how current this situation sounds, Trollope's 1875 novel reflects his views about Victorian England. He wrote, "...a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."

As an illustration, Trollope includes all manner of dishonesty in his complicated plot: the financier who entertains royalty while selling worthless stocks, the investors who ignore questionable aspects of finance as long as they are getting a share of the profits, the lady novelist who gains favorable reviews by flattering influential editors, the aristocratic but short-of-cash young men who profess love for rich young women to get at their money. All these and more.

The main focus of the plot is the rise and fall of the financial "genius" Melmotte, who, despite reader expectations of a good-versus-evil villain, turns out to be a marginally sympathetic character, because he is at least honest with himself about his actions and motivations.

True to Victorian expectations, the many other characters are mostly involved in the marriage plot, wherein the course of true love never does run smooth but mostly sorts itself out admirably. The several romantic stories do not all end as expected or even, perhaps, as the reader would hope.

The structure of the narrative is much like a current soap opera, with the action switching from one story line to another from chapter to chapter. As in a soap opera, all the characters are connected in some way, sometimes only by a propensity to congregate in the same places. (I am reminded so much of Days of Our Lives, a program I have watched guiltily off and on for more than forty years.)

On the plus side, the characters seem real and I learned to care about some of them; there is no high drama, but there are several intriguing plot lines; as in real life, no characters are portrayed in strictly black-and-white terms.

On the minus side, Trollope gives us only one segment of society, the more privileged, and ignores the multitude of very poor people in portraying "the way we live now," and the book drags sometimes and seems over-long (767 pages in my edition). I think Trollope must have grown a bit cynical, because the two characters most honest with themselves and with others both end up as losers in the marriage plot.

Highly recommended, if you have the time. This is widely considered to be Trollope's best novel.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

You know you are in the hands of a master storyteller when you start a book at 7 a.m., before breakfast, and suddenly realize 150 pages later that you have been reading for three hours and that you have not yet eaten anything and that you are still in your pajamas. This was my experience.

No matter what literary and/or intellectual pretensions you may have, I challenge anyone to quit reading this novel after 20 or 30 minutes. The action and characters suck you in so that it is almost impossible to stop reading. I read a great many novels at varying levels of literacy and enduring values, and my opinion is that Stephen King (when at his best) tells the most absorbing stories among modern writers.

This is the story of Dan Torrance, the little boy in The Shining, when he is all grown up and has hit rock bottom in his attempt through alcohol to block remembrance and feeling. After tentatively eluding the demon of addiction through AA, Dan has come to be a valued employee of a hospice residence as Doctor Sleep, capable of guiding the dying to a peaceful end. Then he is contacted by Abra, a young girl with even more capability of "shining" than he ever had, and he is drawn into conflict with the True Blood, a group of semi-immortals who feed vampire-like off of children, not from their blood but from of the essence of their "shining," their paranormal abilities.

In less capable hands, this could be only a suspenseful and scarey story of good versus evil, but King makes it much more.

It's about family--dysfunctional families, loving families, families formed without regard for blood connection. And it's about inheritance--what comes to us through genetics and what we choose to do about our inherited tendencies.

And it's about substance addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous and its ability to help those who have trouble helping themselves. Those familiar with Stephen King's life story can readily see that this part, at least, is reflective of his life experience.

In addition to moving along his suspenseful story, King inserts numerous little asides which seem to be such true aphorisms that one is tempted to be believe that they are folk sayings. For example: "Your mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser."; and "When you couldn't sleep, when you were afraid to look around because of what you might see, time elongated and grew sharp teeth"; and "She was eighty-five and her sleep was as thin as her skin."; and "...the good thing about being old is that you don't have to worry about dying young."

An additional plus: King's narratives of the guidance of Dan Torrance as he assists dying patients are especially perceptive. They are tear-worthy, but more importantly they seem true.

For Stephen King fans who were looking for scarey, this one is not that frightening, but still you will never look at an RV park in the same way again. It is more theme-driven and contemplative than designed to provide chills in the night. I consider it to be one of King's best ever.

Monday, October 7, 2013

New Grub Street by George Gissing

In the literary world, some authors of fiction are so-called hack writers, who can quickly churn out novel after novel, appealing to the "half-educated," most often offering only trite sensationalistic plots, with little else to recommend them. These authors are pragmatic and commercially minded, tailoring their novels with an eye on monetary goals. Other authors, aiming their writing at the more educated crowd, have more idealistic goals and spend more time and effort, trying to write "important" books which impart universal truths in prose which is exact and graceful. And then there are the literary critics who can create a "buzz" for a book which may or may not be praiseworthy. Who gets the "buzz" is most often a matter of who-knows-who and personal feuds and jockeying for prestige.

This picture of the literary world sounds very current, but it is the premise of New Grub Street, written in 1891, about writing as a profession in Victorian England.

The plot follows two literary men with opposing attitudes toward writing: Edwin Reardon is the "old type of impractical artist" and Jasper Milvain is "the literary man of 1882." Milvain says, "Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets...." How modern that sounds. I can think of several current best-selling authors who follow this philosophy.

One very interesting aspect of the novel, which is not applicable to current day, is the picture it gives of the societal pressures created by the class system in England at the time. For an educated person to accept a menial job, even as a clerk, was considered humiliating and permanently lowering in rank and not to be considered even among those living in debt as they tried to hang on to middle-class status. Consequently, some well-educated men who adopted the writing of literature as a profession quite literally starved to death.

All this does not sound very entertaining, but it is, because of the very interesting story (with love conflicts) and the background of England in a time of change. The characters seem very real, although perhaps a bit stereotypical. A distinct thread of cynicism pervades the whole novel, particularly at the ending. It is interesting to speculate where Gissing placed himself in this portrayal of literary professionals.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone

First, if you believe that the Bible is a factual account of actual events as dictated to a human by God, this book will probably offend you and maybe even anger you. Consider yourself forewarned.

The thesis here is that from earliest times the primary deity and object of worship was the goddess. In the pre-history era, society was matriarchal and women occupied an honored place in all aspects of the community. The author details numerous archeological discoveries which would seem to support this contention. Then, the author asserts, the Middle East was invaded by Indo-Europeans, who conquered various regions and attempted to stamp out matriarchy in favor of patriarchy. This attempt to re-focus society peaked when the Levite tribe of the Israelites wrote the beginning chapters of what is now known as the Old Testament. Their account of Adam and Eve and the supposed beginning of humanity was a conscious attempt to stamp out goddess worship and denigrate women, casting them as naturally subservient to men (made from his rib), not too bright (easily tricked by the serpent), deceitful and seductive (persuading Adam to eat of the apple). Man must thus keep woman, who destroyed paradise, perpetually in check, regarding her as one would a small, potentially destructive child, lest she cause further harm.

The many Old Testament pronouncements about punishments for sexual transgressions were aimed at ensuring that the male could be as sure as possible that any children born of a union were parented by him, a necessity in a patriarchal society. For example, while a woman who committed adultery should be stoned, the husband might have numerous wives and concubines. The matter of sexuality was also important in that goddess worship probably included ritual sexual rites, and so the Israelite authors deemed sexual union to be shameful and sinful, to be only tolerated under the auspices of marriage when a man could just not restrain himself. This attitude extended into the New Testament. (Read the writings of St. Paul.)

The heritage of this teaching is alive and well in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions of today and has permeated culture, even among those who do not subscribe to religious belief. Women have never gained their previous status, being still considered by so many as less than and subservient to men.

So much for the premise, as I understand it.

Whether or not a reader buys into the totality of this premise, it should be obvious to anyone that the concepts promulgated by the three current major religions have determined many of the attitudes of today. In the Muslim world, women are sometimes still stoned for adultery and are admonished to wear a veil to avoid tempting men. In the Jewish and Christian world, some still blame the woman for being seductive when she is raped. In all these cultures, many still believe that it is desired by God that women should be subservient to men, supportive of their ruling males (fathers or husbands) and personally silent in family, religious, political, and intellectual matters.

Personally, I felt, rather than knew from my own research, that many of the evidences gathered from archeology were selectively chosen to support the predominance of goddess worship thesis. Particularly revealing were the large numbers of phrases such as "it is possible" and "the evidence suggests" and "perhaps." So, really, nobody knows for sure. I was often reminded of reading Chariot of the Gods, with its archeology-supported thesis of pre-history visitations by aliens from another planet. As presented, that thesis, too, seemed plausible. I felt that the archeology evidence was the weakest part of this book.

Again personally, I can see from my own observation as a resident of the evangelical South that current attitudes about the relationship between men and women are largely dependent upon the belief that God ordained men to be superior. From the news, I can see that many in the Muslim world also holds this view. Whether or not the goddess once ruled, it is apparent today that the god rules.

And whether or not any or all of the assertions of this book are believed, it is still very interesting in the light that it throws on the study of fictional literature.