Review: She

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 4

I first read She for a British Imperial Lit course when my workload didn’t allow a leisurely pace. The professor was especially keen on well-used/integrated quotes so my first time through this book was a mad rush for themes and quotables. Fortunately, imperialist themes are easy to pick out…

Writing ‘at white heat’, and in the flush of success after the publication of King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard drew again on his knowledge of Africa and of ancient legends, but also on something deeper and more disturbing. To the Englishmen who journey through shipwreck, fever, and cannibals to her hidden realm, She is the goal of a quest bequeathed to them two thousand years before; to Haggard’s readers, She is the embodiment of one of the most potent and ambivalent figures of Western mythology, a female who is both monstrous and desirable—and, without question, deadlier than the male! (back cover of the Oxford World Classics edition)

Some passages in She are very dated, but I don’t expect a book from 1887 to reflect modern sensitivities. That said, I first read She after Conrad’s Lord Jim so it seemed downright progressive by comparison. Haggard has far less talk about the ‘natural superiority’ of British men and She-who-must-be-obeyed (a.k.a. Ayesha) easily winds Leo and Holly, two Victorian gents, around her little finger.

Like all good adventure stories, She follows the fulfillment of a millennia-old quest. Leo, a handsome and learned young man, inherits an iron chest and potsherd that outlines an improbable story written by an Egyptian woman, Amenartas. The story goes that Amenartas was fleeing Egypt with her husband, Kallikrates, when they encountered Ayesha, who wanted Kallikrates for her own. When he rejected her offer of power, immortality, and “love,” she killed him. According to the sherd and its accompanying history, Leo is a direct descendent of Kallikrates and must kill Ayesha to avenge his forebear.

Along with his mentor/father-figure, Holly, Leo decides to follow the path laid out by the relic. They travel to Africa and encounter a cannibalistic tribe. While under attack, they’re saved on the orders of She-who-must-be-obeyed, but not everyone obeys her order to immediately release Leo and his companions. Accompanying Ayesha’s grand entrance is her pronouncement of death upon everyone who failed to heed her command the instant it was issued. Holly entreats her to be merciful, but she explains:

“Were I to show mercy to those wolves, your lives would not be safe among this people for a day. Thou knowest them not. They are tigers to lap blood, and even now they hunger for your lives. How thinkest thou that I rule this people? I have but a regiment of guards to do my bidding, therefore it is not by force. It is by terror. My empire is of the imagination. Once in a generation mayhap I do as I have done but now, and slay a score by torture. Believe not that I would be cruel, or take vengeance on anything so low. What can it profit me to be avenged on such as these? Those who live long, my Holly, have no passions save where they have interests. Though I may seem to slay in wrath all because my mood is crossed, it is not so. Thou hast seen how in the heavens the little clouds blow this way and that without a cause, yet behind them is the great wind sweeping on its path whither it listeth. So it is with me, oh Holly. My moods and changes are the little clouds, and fitfully these seem to turn; but behind them ever blows the great wind of my purpose.” (161)

Unfortunately (or perhaps not, in terms of entertainment value), Ayesha isn’t quite how she presents herself here. In this snippet, she seems to be a grand creature existing on a higher plane. She sees the big picture and can’t concern herself with trifling humans. But, the more time Holly spends with her, he finds that she’s vain and petty. In Leo’s presence, she further downgrades to a squirming schoolgirl with a crush. And the contrast is fantastic! Haggard balances Ayesha between two stages of development: on one hand, she has spent millennia contemplating philosophy, beauty, and language; on the other, she has spent 2,000 years in a cave and her social skills are non-existent.

In Ayesha’s flightier moments, Holly bemoans the weakness of her sex (it doesn’t help that he doesn’t get on well with the ladies back home). There’s low-key sexism at work, but other than her womanish vices, there’s little about Ayesha that’s human. Her long life and departure from social mores means that she acts according to her whims; she’s uninterested in kindness, traditional morality, or the concerns of mortals. So while her connections to humanity are through girlish stereotypes, these flashes of relatability are necessary. Somehow, the first analogy to mind is the way people get very excited when big cats act like house cats. There’s less fear or being mauled when you’re looking at big cat in a box and thinking: “Aww, just like my little cat at home!” When Holly looks at the more human side of Ayesha, he’s less frightened of her for a moment.

Throughout the book, Ayesha consistently has the upper hand. Holly and Leo are reduced to inane babbling in the face of her insurmountable beauty. At times, their compliance to her plans and goals feels overdone. Possible counterargument: Ayesha appears to engage in minor mind control since their affections for her wax and wane according to her wants.

Perhaps my favorite part of the story, however, is when Ayesha leads Holly through a massive network of caves and catacombs of a lost people. These people had the power to preserve their dead exactly as they looked in life. Holly and Ayesha tour long, twisting caves and vast antechambers, musing on the faces of the dead and the tragic end of the city. Their tour culminates with a suitably eerie scene which Haggard pulls off to great effect.

Haggard’s prose is smooth and easy to read. The antequated speech between Holly and Ayesha (“thou seest,” etc.) is a constant reminder that she’s from another age. They converse frequently in Arabic, though she offers to speak in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew (ancient forms of each). It’s not until Ayesha shows some interest in the modern world that Holly and Leo show a flash of fear—Ayesha thinks the Queen of England can be toppled! Oh, to be writing a paper on this book again…

Overall: 4.5  She moves quickly and reads so smoothly that it feels modern at times. The pacing is excellent, building to a fever pitch by the end. The story is strange, as you can already tell, but it’s absorbing. How will Leo and Holly deal with Ayesha when they’re utterly powerless in the face of her beauty??

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

16 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  7. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  12. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  14. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  15. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  16. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Review: The Moving Finger

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the body takes a while to show up. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery: in a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business, why would anyone put so much effort into fake secrets:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (even though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4  Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  7. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  8. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  12. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  13. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  14. She by H. Rider Haggard
  15. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  19. ??? (To Be Determined)

Review: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café is my go-to book when coping with flight anxiety. It’s so absorbing that I can overlook minor turbulence while reading. I’ve read it six or seven times now with a year or two between readings. It’s phenomenal every time.

The story is simple: Miss Amelia is a jack-of-all-trades in a small, poor town. From handling a bit of everything, she’s earned a good amount of money and is the wealthiest woman for miles. When a stranger claims to be her cousin, the town eagerly anticipates the sight of Miss Amelia tossing the con-man out on his ear. But she doesn’t. His presence effects some positive changes—she begins serving regular dinners at her store and becomes more generous—but Cousin Lymon’s slimy presence leaves everyone bracing for a fall. I first read this book for a college course and spent the next week picking it apart. I was less concerned with themes/symbolism than the question of why, WHY does Miss Amelia get so tangled with Cousin Lymon?

Just as in A Member of the Wedding, McCullers’ prose is beautiful. When I think back to this book, I recall not only words, but images. It’s more like remembering a film than a book. Her descriptions are plain-spoken, but rich in detail. It’s calm and a little sleepy:

Opening lines:
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the  tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. The nearest train stop is Society City, and the Greyhound and White Bus Lines use the Forks Falls Road which is three miles away. The winters here are short and raw, the summers white with glare and fiery hot. (3)

As for Miss Amelia:

Miss Amelia was rich. In addition to the store she operated a still three miles back in the swamp, and ran out the best liquor in the county. She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed. There were those who would have courted her, but Miss Amelia cared nothing for the love of men and was a solitary person. Her marriage had been unlike any other marriage ever contracted in this county—it was a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked. Except for this queer marriage, Miss Amelia had lived her life alone. Often she spent whole nights back in her shed in the swamp, dressed in overalls and gum boots, silently guarding the low fire of the still. (4-5)

It brings me joy to read a well-written story, but I finish it with the same unsettled, heartbroken feeling every time. Some folks might not enjoy the subject matter or setting, but I’m confident we can all agree that it’s brilliantly crafted and paced.

As for the themes and questions of WHY that plagued me through college, McCullers lays these out early. Once the point is established, she builds her characters and their interactions. This style reminds me of a quote I once heard about Anna Karenina: “We do not judge, we watch.” McCullers presents her characters as they are without over-explaining their actions or answering for them. She doesn’t twist the narrative in a more palatable direction or call out Cousin Lymon’s faults. It’s as though she’s a reporter simply relaying a story for the reader to question and experience for themselves.

Overall: 5 out of 5  If you handed me a red pen and told me to mark it up, I’d hand back a clean copy. I’m not taking off points for its sadness; it’s right there in the title, after all. Besides, you can’t expect a story about unrequited love to have many butterflies.

Translation: Read it.

Sidenote: Yes, I have The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. No, I haven’t read it yet. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I can’t help worrying it won’t live up to the hype of McCullers’ shorter works. Has anyone read it?

Review: Intruder in the Dark

intruder-in-the-dark_coverGeorge Bellairs’ Intruder in the Dark begins with Cyril Savage’s arrival in Plumpton Bois to collect an inheritance from his great-aunt, Miss Melody Johnson. Impatient, he inspects the house early, only to find that it has been ransacked and the cellar door is locked. He breaks it down and is killed by a blow to the head. There’s some debate over the motive for this crime—whether the intruder was a random robber or connected to Miss Johnson’s past—so Superintendent Littlejohn and Inspector Cromwell are called from Scotland Yard to sort it out.

This was my first Littlejohn and Cromwell mystery and I was pleasantly surprised—it was hard to put down! Their investigation comprises a series of interviews with the townsfolk, who all have different impressions of Miss Johnson and her family depending on their place in the town. Since Littlejohn and Cromwell split up for their interviews and confer afterwards, they’re rarely in the same scene. They’re both competent and inquisitive, but they blurred together in my mind, as neither displays many unique traits. In contrast, the townsfolk are vividly written. I came away with a strong impression of the background characters and suspects. I suppose I should keep reading this series to learn more about Littlejohn and Cromwell—perhaps they’re better established elsewhere. Any suggestions?

Each interviewee has a little bit of suspicion and pettiness about them, which makes them memorable and occasionally entertaining, e.g. Mrs. Murphy:

“What sort of woman was Sarah Rasp, who used to be the Johnsons’ maid?”

“A sly, secretive sort. You might also call her sinister…”

Mrs. Murphy made a point of reading most of the paperbacks covering romance, crime and horror before she put them in the rack in the shop for ready sale. It added greatly to her vocabulary of pithy words and phrases to use against her enemies. (Loc 950)

What complicates the mystery is that its motivations stem from events fifty years before. Bellairs conveys the passage of time well by making the past feel suitably distant. Many witnesses are either deceased or missing and everyone has had decades to get their story straight. My favorite moment was this epiphany by Littlejohn:

Littlejohn realised that in his contacts with these old people, these relics of events of more than half a century ago, he was among those in whom the fires of passion and enthusiasm were extinguished for ever. Many of the characters had quitted the stage long since. Their shadows were all that remained for those left behind to hate or despise. (Loc 1896)

Once the mystery is closed, the book ends without additional fluff. The most awkward part of crime fiction is when everyone has to stand around after and congratulate each other on their cleverness (because this is really the writer congratulating himself/herself). Usually, I skim this bit, but Bellairs has a knack for timing without any wasted words. I look forward to reading many others. (And I do mean “many”—he was quite prolific!)

Overall: 4.8 I loved the small town vibe and pace of the mystery. I would have liked more development/information with Littlejohn and Cromwell, but if I can get this from other books in the series, the lack of it here isn’t really a ‘flaw,’ and they were otherwise competent and clever.

Nota Bene: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Ipso Books (via NetGalley)

Translation: Read it!