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“Masterpieces are only lucky attempts.”
~ George Sand
This new system, or I should say lack of system of letting myself write book reviews out of reading order is really working for me and has certainly got me writing a whole lot more than I would otherwise. I completed my 64th book of the year yesterday, so it looks like I’ll probably hit 75 in May (being part of a group called 75 Books in 2014 providing adequate motivation). I used to write reviews for every single book I read and then fell out of that practice last year because it was just too much work, and now allowing myself to write about books according to passing inspiration seems more feasible, especially considering I often set out to write just a word or two and then get caught up writing something that requires more thinking and editing, so I can now set it aside till inspiration strikes again. The following review has been in the works since I finished this book earlier this month (it was my 53rd). I hope to get it right, because I think this ARC definitely deserves to get great coverage!
“There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy. The room was papered in a pattern of winding branches, amongst which great green parent owls perched in identical courting couples. Beneath each pair, a trio of green owlets huddled, their sharp beaks slightly ajar. They sat between big, whistling green flowers with tiny white blossoms which made James think of mother-of-pearl buttons, the kind on Charlotte’s Sunday dress. When he was alone in the nursery, James thought he could hear the owls chatter together softly, like monkeys, scratching and scratching their claws against the endless green branches. But when Charlotte was there, they were quiet, because she had told them that if they did not behave, she would get her box of watercolours and paint out their eyes.”
Yorkshire, England, late 19th century. James Norbury and his beloved older sister Charlotte have spent their early years mostly left to their own devices at Aiskew Hall. Their father had left them shortly after their mother’s death and is constantly away on business, and they have been left vaguely under the care of Mrs Rowley the housekeeper; various governesses have come and gone, never staying for long, and it is left to Charlotte to teach James his letters. She is a very good teacher, and soon, by the age of six, James has taken to writing short stories and rhymes, which aren’t very good, though Charlotte encourages him by telling him he might write a whole book when he is grown up and living in a house in London. Then one day their father finally does comes home, but he is gravely ill and hidden away from them in his room under the care of a doctor, only to die a day or two following his arrival, after a brief interview with Charlotte, though he is too weakened to speak by that point. During that incident, James is hidden away in a secret cupboard, which Charlotte hasn’t been able to release him from on time so both could attend to their father, as they were interrupted in a game which they must keep the adults from knowing about, involving special “ordeals” to prove their bravery to one another. On their father’s death, the children are left in the care of their old aunt Mrs Chickering, with Charlotte attending to the old lady and James going off to school Years later, when he is about to finish his studies at Oxford, James decides he must live in London: “Thanks to a small legacy received some years ago, James had enough to live in relative comfort, without the need of pursuing a profession. Charlotte was sufficiently provided for. So he might still write, if he wanted. And he could live in London, where a writer ought to live and where things would happen. He would be a flâneur, wandering the streets, seeing everything, observed by none. That evening he wrote in his memorandum book, Life with a capital must be lived in the Capital, and was pleased with the sentiment.”
But he soon finds that his relatively modest means can’t afford him a decent living space, so that when an old school friend puts him in touch of another Oxford acquaintance, a young aristocrat named Christopher Paige, who is looking for someone to share rooms with in an elegantly appointed house, James jumps on the chance. The house is of the most genteel sort, near the National History Museum and belonging to a Mrs Morris, a lady of ‘reduced circumstances’. James has apprehensions about the handsome Paige, whom he knows to be a dissipated young man, always out on the town getting spectacularly drunk with his friends and bedding all the pretty women he can get his hands on. Nonetheless, they rent the rooms together and make a sort of odd couple, with James a hermit who stays in his rooms to work away at his epic romantic poetry, while Paige gets up to no good on a nightly basis. And then something happens between the two young men, a relationship James had certainly never envisaged, but which quickly consumes him. Christopher’s older brother figures out things are amiss and warns James off, and the pair plans to get away together overseas, only a violent attack changes everything, and James will never be the same again.
There is a very ancient private club called The Aegolius (denoting a species of small owls), which we find out about from the very first page of the book, in what appears to be a newspaper clipping titled “From Clubs of London, by Major Samuel Hobbs (London, 1890)” which I paraphrase from; this club reportedly bears the dubious distinction of being the most mysterious club of London, with the Aegolius’s character and affairs kept a profound secret, known only to its initiates. There are records of the club dating from 1705, though it is likely the club had been active many years previously. Unlike most clubs, there is no gambling or consumption of alcohol allowed on the premises, and it is not known for any political, literary or artistic activities or affiliations. Furthermore, there can only be up to fifty-two members at any one time, and becoming a member is exceedingly expensive and difficult (the Prince of Wales was notoriously turned down in 1785), and needless to say, no visitors are allowed. This club and a number of its members are at the heart of the narrative. What the connection with James can be is only revealed further on in the story, when James’s sister Charlotte, fearing something is amiss when she sends him telegrams that go unanswered, makes her way from Yorkshire to London to find James, and falls in with a pair of vigilantes composed of a middle-aged lapsed priest and a former rope walker; a beautiful young woman who often wears men’s garb, smokes like a chimney and can fight like a fiend. These skills, it seems, are necessary to perform their daily activities.
The novel is steeped in the macabre gothic horror tradition, which isn’t too surprising when we find out that Lauren Owen’s first attempts at writing as a teenager were Harry Potter fan-fiction, that she is a graduate of St Hilda’s, Oxford with an MA in Victorian Literature, and completing a PhD on Gothic writing and fan culture. She’s obviously done the right sort of reading and mental processing, because what she delivers here is a tour de force which is almost unbelievable for a first novel: a highly satisfying read, which borrows from some of the best literary influences of the Victorian age, weaving in intimations of famous crimes of the day, such as the unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper, and including a cameo of Oscar Wilde, who certainly has his place among the many influences at play in the story. All this in a complex, multi-layered narrative which nonetheless reads like the best sort of unputdownable mystery fiction, in a world of Dickensian proportions and characters, yet with a modern approach which, unlike the sort of fiction it borrows from, doesn’t shy away from describing the violence and horror in full, while at the same time clearly keeping in line with works of great literary merit. A must read? Like Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Tana French, and many others, I must say I certainly think so. I’ll also be eager to read what Lauren Owen comes up with next.
I’ve grown very fond of the Muriel Spark who wrote (among many others) Loitering with Intent, Memento Mori and A Far Cry from Kensington, which are among my favourite novels, and while I was expecting to be highly diverted by Aiding and Abetting, it was another of those instances where high expectations are probably to blame for my relative lack of appreciation. The story is based on a true crime committed by “Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (born 18 December 1934), popularly known as Lord Lucan, a British peer and suspected murderer, disappeared without trace early on 8 November 1974”. Now that I’m reading the wikipedia entry about the man, it occurs to me I might have enjoyed Spark’s novel more had I had the full details as revealed there, along with that photo of a beautiful man—who indeed would have been a very good James Bond candidate—in mind. Lucan was a gambler, and his marriage to his gorgeous wife Veronica Duncan collapsed in 1972; a bitter custody battle over their three children ensued, and it seems Lucan developed an obsession over his ex-wife and somehow determined that doing away with her would be the solution to all his problems, financial and otherwise. The attempted murder was horribly botched. While reportedly waiting for his wife to come down the darkened basement stairs of their former mutual home, the inquest revealed that he probably mistook their nanny Sandra Rivett for Veronica, bludgeoned her to death, and then realizing his mistake, viciously attacked his wife when she showed up thereafter; Duncan was treated in hospital for serious head injuries and survived the ordeal, but Lucan disappeared and was never apprehended for his crimes. Lucan’s fate has remained a high-profile mystery for the British public. Many reports of sightings of Lucan in various countries around the world have been made, though none were substantiated, and despite an ongoing police investigation and continued press coverage, Lucan has continued to evade discovery.
To make the story her own, Spark bases her theories on the fact that many friends and family members of Lucan came to his defence during the investigation, no doubt largely owing to his position in society as a British peer (i.e. member of British nobility). The story is a contemporary one, in which Lucan and another man who also claims to be Lucan, but calls himself Mr Walker, both become patients of a famous psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, at her Paris office. What we are led to understand is that a now elderly Lucan has evaded the authorities by having facial reconstruction and thanks to his supporters, has been traveling around the world with the aid of funds provided by his wealthy friends. But now Lucan and Walker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the former, are believed to be working together, and having come on hard times, are bent on blackmailing Dr Wolf, having discovered a secret past and identity she also needs to keep hidden.
The premise is certainly fascinating, and this should have worked for me, but somehow it failed to do so. I didn’t find the bitter humour I so enjoyed in the Spark novels I’ve listed above, and I failed to feel any real interest for any of the protagonists or their fates. But then again, I knew little to nothing about the affair or the real human beings behind the story until I read the book. The real-life story seemed far-fetched enough to make for perfectly good fiction, so it seemed to me all the additional intrigue was unnecessary. That being said, far be it from me to want to discourage anyone from deciding for themselves whether this is a novel worthy of attention or not. I may reread it someday, along with other Muriel Spark works I want to revisit, and then again, I may not. But if anything, Lucan’s story is an intriguing one and is certainly worthy of speculation.
eta: Here’s a related article from the Mirror I just found: The truth must finally be told: Why Lord Lucan’s son is finally speaking out after 38 years
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate ★★★★½
Edition: HarperCollins (2012), eBook, OverDrive READ, 320 pages
Highlights: ALA Notable Children’s Book (2013), Newbery Medal (2013)
Original publication date: 2012
I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.
It’s not as easy as it looks.
People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan,
Humans waste words. The toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.
Everyone knows the peels are the best part.
I suppose you think gorillas can’t understand you. Of course, you probably also think
we can’t walk upright.
Try knuckle walking for an hour. Tell me, which way is more fun?
I’ve learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human
speech is not the same as understanding humans.
Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise
even when they have nothing to say.
It took me some time to recognize all those sounds, to weave words into things.
But I was patient.
Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.
Gorillas are as patient as stones, humans, not so much.”
So begins Ivan the ape’s tale. Ivan is a silverback and has been living in a glass cage at the Exit 8 Video Arcade and Big Top Mall for the last 30 years. He used to be a star attraction. He delighted visitors with his feats of eating (around to 45 pounds of fruit and leaves and rotten wood and yogourt-covered raisins a day), watching tv, and with his crayon drawings; his pictures are sold for $25 each at the gift shop (framed) and people keep buying them. But now that Ivan is older and not so cute, and visibly not very happy in his glass enclosure (one wall of which is painted with scenery of a rainfall in the jungle), people don’t visit the circus so much anymore, and his owner Mack, who adopted Ivan when he arrived in a crate as a baby straight from the jungle after his parents had been murdered, is desperate to find ways to make ends meet. As it is, he has to cut back on food and might have to stop the heating the mall in the winter at night. Ivan grew up with Mack, being treated like a small child, taken to McDonald’s and the fun fair and wearing kid’s clothes and sleeping in the same bed as Mac in his house. When he became bigger and unruly, he was put in this glass cage at the Big Top Mall, and there’s a large billboard he can see from his spot advertising the circus and its daily shows at two, four and seven, 365 days a year, with The One and Only Ivan as the star attraction. Unlike his portrait on the billboard though, Ivan is far from being fierce, and like most gorillas, is actually a gentle soul.
Ivan enjoys his fame, but he’d be even more lonely and bored if it wasn’t for his friends, including Stella, an old elephant which Mack bought from a circus when she became lame after a badly healed accident while performing a trick. Her foot is constantly infected, and Mack can’t afford to call in a vet ‘every time she sneezes’, as he says. Ivan also has a good friend in Bob, who showed up as a tiny puppy through a hole in a bottom corner of Ivan’s glass enclosure and fell asleep on his tummy at night, which is where Ivan discovered him when he woke up in the morning. Bob was abandoned on the freeway and he doesn’t trust humans, is proud in fact of being free to roam as he likes. He’s always remained a tiny little thing, and always sleeps on Ivan’s tummy at night, which is comforting to both. Ivan, Stella and Bob can all understand each other, and though they use few words, they converse every day and keep each other company that way, making each other feel loved and appreciated. They do have one human friend: Julia, who is the daughter of George the janitor who comes in to clean every night. Julia always accompanies her father to spend time with the animals, and though she’s supposed to do her homework, she’d rather spend time drawing and painting the animals, and frequently slips Ivan art supplies through his hole. Then one day, Mack brings in a new arrival: Ruby is a baby elephant, just purchased cheap from a bankrupt circus who kept her for just a month and tried to “break” her to perform tricks by keeping her four feet tied down 23 hours a day. Stella takes her under her wing and encourages Ruby to do what she must to survive in this new environment. But then Stella becomes very very sick from the unhealed foot infection, and thinking she will breathe her last soon, makes Ivan promise he will save Ruby from the same fate of spending her whole life in wretched conditions such as these.
From the first lines of the book, which are delivered in short spurts in a series of “chapters” under headings like those shown above, we learn about Ivan’s way of looking at the world and eventually about his ingenious plan to save Ruby. Though he’s survived—unlike his twin sister who died when they were originally put in a shipping crate when they were captured—by intentionally forgetting his past, deliberately putting out of his mind the time when he was a baby gorilla, roaming free in the jungle surrounded by those of his kind in his close-knit family unit, Ruby keeps demanding stories to keep away the daily boredom, and Ivan, who isn’t very good at storytelling (unlike Stella, who remembered everything she’d ever seen and heard), forces himself to revisit his past to have a story to tell, and learns to rely on resources he never knew he had until they became necessary for him to keep his promise to his friend.
This look at animals in captivity under the worst kind of conditions is absolutely heart-wrenching, and if like me you believe that animals have their own form of intelligence and real feelings and souls too, you can’t help but be deeply affected by this tale. But beyond the story about cruelty and animal rights, is also a tale about the loneliness and alienation we all feel from time to time, and about the resources we can all reach for inside ourselves, with a little prompting and a nudge from caring friends. I think this is a story that will remain with me for a long, long time.
I wasn’t surprised to find out in the end that Applegate was inspired by the real-life story of a gorilla in Tacoma, Wash., named Ivan. “After being kept alone in a cage at a mall for 27 years, he became a celebrity after being placed with a large group of gorillas in the Atlanta zoo, where he made paintings and signed them with a thumbprint.” (NYT blog). The real-life Ivan had lived under similar conditions as those described in the book, until National Geographic aired a featured called The Urban Gorilla, which fuelled protests by animals right’s activists (also see link to NYT article below). The book certainly more than deserved the Newbery Medal it received last year, and the only reason I didn’t give it the full 5 stars is because of how wretchedly sad it made me feel, though there is a message of hope and a happy resolution in the end.
The real life Ivan died on August 20, 2012, at the age of 50 at Zoo Atlanta.
Here are some related links :
A Gorilla Sulks in a Mall as His Future Is Debated (NYT)
The Urban Gorilla on YouTube (National Geographic )
I found out after finishing this book, as I listened to a short NPR interview with Emma Donoghue, that she’d based her latest story on a true crime that took place in California in 1876: “On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed”, she told the interviewer. Basing herself on numerous court transcripts and newspaper articles, she found material which was too good to make up; the city was in the middle of a major heatwave and a devastating smallpox epidemic; the victim Jenny Bonnet was a professional frog-catcher who sold her goods to local restaurants and wore men’s clothes, which was a punishable offence in the city of San Francisco and landed her in jail numerous times. The other woman, Blanche Beunon was a French immigrant who made her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute. These two women, along with the city of San Francisco itself, a ramshackle place quickly thrown together by “miners, restaurateurs and prostitutes” are Donoghue’s main characters, from which she fleshed out her story, creating plausible lives for the two women and imagining how the two might have crossed paths and come to be in that room together on the fatal night.
The main character is Blanche, who at first is content with her life, making men drool and throw money at her feet with her naughty stage acts and ‘michetons’, the rich customers she charges healthy fees for sexual favours. But when Jenny Bonnet literally slams into her with her outlandish machine, in the form of a large front-wheel bicycle, and the two unconventional women start developing a friendship, questions raised by Jenny force Blanche to look at her life from a new perspective. Donoghue, while not condoning nor condemning prostitution, raises question about how it affects women’s lives in the larger picture. In this case, Blanche has had a baby by her French boyfriend, who abhors the ‘Bourgeois’ but has no qualms comfortably living off her earnings, and who had arranged for the newborn to be farmed out to “Angel Makers”, a form of childcare for desperate parents known as such because the children are likely to die from neglect. Up until her encounter with Jenny, Blanche had conveniently put the whole matter out of her mind and never visited the place where her child was kept, imagining, as she was led to believe, that the child lived in the fresh air of a country farm, away from city pollution and dirt. But from the sudden shocking awareness of what Petit’s living conditions have actually been for the first year of his life, a mother’s love will force her to make difficult choices which will have repercussions on many lives.
I read Donoghue’s Slammerkin many years ago, and must say I haven’t had the courage to broach Room yet, but in this new novel, she returns in good form to one of my favourite genres and delivers a historical fiction novel that crackles with life and realistic details and characters, and makes for a really great yarn from beginning to end, for what is a basically an unputdownable read.
I’ve listened to Khristine Hvam narrate other books before and while she is a good narrator, my beef with her is that she seems to have just one cookie-cutter foreign accent which I’ve heard her use for both Czech and French accents most unconvincingly. Of course, in my case, being a fluent French speaker, a bad French accent is bound to grate on the ears, and in this case, since the main protagonist is French, there is a lot of grating to be endured, but to Hvam’s credit, the delivery was good enough for this to be a minor quibble and didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of this audiobook. Definitely recommended.
I recently wrote about this little quarterly which I’ve become a dedicated subscriber to since around this time last year, and so far each issue continues to delight. I’m reading them out of order, since the back issues go back to 2004 and I am still busily collecting them, so going back and forth between the most recent issues as they arrive in the mail and going back to the oldest ones I have in between. Reading order matters not at all when it comes to this publication, since the books reviewed are never the newest and most talked about, but rather old favourites of the individual contributors who write always charming essays about why their particular chosen book (or series, or author) stands out in their memory. This issue starts with a book and author I’ve never heard about—and probably should have by now—, but have firmly placed on my wishlist: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas, which unprecedentedly won not one, but two National Book Awards, one in the Arts category, the other in Science, and has been described in The New Yorker as a ‘shimmering vision’. As the author of the article, Richard Mabey says: “Thomas was something of a vision himself, as improbable as a tortoise with wings. He was a scientist who was not only literate but also poetic. [...] it was Thomas’s genius to conjure some thirty [essays] into a coherent treatise full of astonishing, reverberating knowledge and sublime prose. [...] His own language was anything but dodgy. It was exact, idiosyncratic and often heart-stoppingly beautiful — never more so than in the book’s key passage, where he re-imagines that step-changing first photograph of earth from space:
“Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos… it has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvellously skilled in handling the sun.”
One of many delightful features, along with articles about their latest Slightly Foxed Editions release; I Was a Stranger by John Hackett, who was a commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade during WWII (“I Was a Stranger is not so much a tale of derring-do (thought its descriptions of fighting are vivid) as a story of friendship. The heroism it celebrates is not that of soldiers, but of a household run by three women in a [Dutch] town under German occupation.”) and Captain of Foot by Ronald Welch, the latest in a beloved, long out of print series called the Carey Family Chronicles, which they are now publishing as limited editions (the first three Knight Crusader, The Galleon, For the King, are also available); an article about Queen Mary by James Pope-Henessy (now out of print); illustrator Pauline Baynes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fame; Flann O’Brien’s inspired alcoholic Irish prose; how Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels came about; one of Anthony Powell’s lesser-known, now out of print What’s Become of Waring; and finally, among several other riches, an article by Laura Freeman, a harried features desk editor at a British national newspaper, who describes how she fared in her self-appointed project of trying to tackle Charles Dickens’s complete works (minus Great Expectations, which she’d read in school) during his anniversary year.
*TBR: To Be Read (a pile, or an entire library, in my case)
Now there was a good bit of fun! I’m not a frequent reader of YA novels, but I do enjoy them once in a while, and this one turned out to be a real treat. Fifteen year-old Penelope Lumley, just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females sometime in the mid 19th century, is on her way to her first job interview as a potential governess. The employers had asked for someone who gets along with animals, and as it happens she is a great animal lover and is very much looking forward to finding out what sort of creatures she will find at her potential employers’. When she arrives at Ashton place with some trepidation, not being sure whether she will be able to call this place her home or be sent away, she is greeted with mysterious howling sounds, which everyone in the estate seems to be at pains not to hear. But inevitably, she is hired and comes face to face with her charges; three young siblings, two boys and a small girl, who have grown up wild in the local woods, seemingly having been raised by wolves. Her mandate of teaching them French and Latin and Geography and Mathematics, will also have to include teaching them first to start talking like human beings and (for the boys) how to properly put a pair of pants on. The children are very attached to her and she’s delighted with their progress, though of course another big challenge is soon thrown her way; she must groom them to behave irreproachably and in very short order, to be the main attraction at a grand Christmas ball to which high dignitaries and the crème de la crème of society will be invited, and this when the children are still barely able to contain themselves from howling at the least provocation. Elements of Jane Eyre come into play when some of the mysterious howlings seemingly turn out to originate from a hidden portion of the attic. But the secret of this strange mystery will only be revealed in a further instalment (this being the first book of 4 so far in the The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series). Just as well, as I will happily continue to follow the adventures of Miss Lumley and the Incorrigibles. I should add these books are illustrated with covers and delightful b&w drawings by Canadian writer and illustrator (and 2013 Caldecott Medal winner) Jon Klassen.