Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

We have already listened to a Neil Gaiman book this year, Neverwhere, so I ordinarily would have waited before reading more. However, my 14 year old second daughter is really into Gaiman right now. Okay, so she has loved him ever since we listened to Coraline a few years back. Anyway, she checked this book out, read it, and told me I should read it. When your teenager says that, well....

This book has some overlap with “M” Is For Magic, namely “October in the Chair,” “How To Talk To Girls At Parties,” “Sunbird,” and the poem, “Instructions;” but it also contains a number of more adult stories. The short stories and poems were mostly published previously in magazines or book anthologies. They span a wide range of genres, although they all are recognizably Gaiman within a few paragraphs at most. He has, shall we say, a style. I’ll stick to the format I used in “M” Is For Magic, and detail the short stories not in that former collection. There are also a number of poems, which range from fairly traditional to free verse. With the exception of “Instructions,” which is simply fantastic, the poems aren’t as good as the story, in my opinion.

A Study In Emerald

This is, as Gaiman puts it, Sherlock Holmes finds himself in an H. P. Lovecraft story. So some combination of the supernatural and aliens, but with a logical sleuth.

Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire

This one is a real gas. This person, who appears to live in a ghoulish fantasy world, keeps trying to write, as he puts in “realistic fiction on the human condition.” Except that his proper Gothic horror novel keeps getting “humor” thrown in - it starts sounding like a novel of manners from our world. Finally, a raven asks him the fatal question: “Do you enjoy writing it?” The answer, of course, is “no.” So he gives in and writes what he wants.

The young man shivered. He rolled the stock themes of fantasy over in his mind: cars and stockbrokers and commuters, housewives and police, agony columns and commercials for soap, income tax and cheap restaurants, magazines and credit cards and streetlights and computers…
“It’s escapism, true,” he said, aloud. “But is not the highest impulse in mankind the urge toward freedom, the drive to escape?”

I suspect Gaiman has gotten the equivalent of this as a result of his own dedication to fantasy, rather than “realistic” literary novels. But of course, good writing in any genre tells us things about human nature.

The Flints of Memory Lane

This one is a short ghost story. At least a sort-of ghost story.

Closing Time

This is story about a childhood memory, with a framing story of an old drinking club. Not necessarily Gaiman’s memory - although he says the places are real - but the memory of a character within the framing story.

Bitter Grounds

This is a rather bizarre tale. The narrator is reeling from a bad breakup, and is out on the road, essentially running away. He meets this guy who asks for a ride to meet a tow truck to tow his broken down car. When they get there, the guy has forgotten his wallet and briefcase. The narrator goes back for them, but when he returns, there is no sign of either the man or the tow truck. He tries to find information, only to discover the man is apparently some sort of anthropologist on his way to a conference. He is unable to contact the man, so he impersonates him at the conference. From there, things get progressively more odd, and even supernatural. A classic Gaiman sort of story.

Other People

An interesting short take on hell. After the physical tortures, the man experienced this:

Everything he had ever done that had been better left undone. Every lie he had told - told to himself, or told to others. Every little hurt, and all the great hurts. Each one was pulled out of him, detail by detail, inch by inch. The demon stripped away the cover of forgetfulness, stripped everything down to a truth, and it hurt more than anything.

And then, over and over again.

It was like peeling an onion. This time through his life he learned about consequences. He learned the results of things he had done; things he had been blind to as he did them; the ways he had hurt the world; the damage he had done to people he had never known, or met, or encountered. It was the hardest lesson yet.

There is a school of thought within Christianity that this is the process that one must undergo to become fit for heaven. We cannot enter as we are, with all our arrogance and pride - we must be purged in some way. My personal view is that many will choose to be annihilated rather than face this process.

Gaiman describes this as a Mobius story - and that is a great description.

Keepsakes and Treasures

This is a really dark story, about an orphan (or at least foundling) who gets involved in a particularly sick underworld. It has some pretty rough sexual content. The main characters of Smith and Mr. Alice also turn up in “The Monarch of the Glen,” which is kind of a short story sequel to American Gods.

Good Boys Deserve Favors

A short story about a brief childhood career as a double bass player. Or at least being a kid who carried a double bass around and tried not to make noise in the rests. Except for one magical improvised solo.

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch

Kind of a mystery ghost story.

Strange Little Girls

This is a collection of 12 short vignettes written to accompany Tori Amos’ album of the same name.

Harlequin Valentine

A story about Harlequin, the stock character from ancient drama.

The Problem of Susan

I had actually read this one previously. Gaiman takes on a seriously uncomfortable issue with The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis seems to simply abandon Susan to a hellish fate, simply because she grows up and - it is strongly implied - becomes a sexual being, interested in boys and love and marriage. This really stuck in Gaiman’s craw, even though he loved the books as a kid. His response is both a, well, response, and a challenge in its own right. Very thought provoking.

How Do You Think It Feels?

Gaiman was asked to write a story for an anthology with gargoyles as a theme. Writing is a weird profession sometimes. This is a pretty sexual story, with an ambiguous ending.

Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot

If a vampire wrote vignettes for tarot cards, I guess. Honestly, my knowledge of Tarot is pretty non-existent, so I probably didn’t get most of the references.

Feeders and Eaters

This is a really creepy story about a flesh eating woman and the man devoted to her.

Diseasemaker’s Croup

A very short riff on snake oil “alternative medicine.” Humorous in the best Gaiman way.

In the End

A one-page imagining if the last book of the Bible was a mirror image of the first chapters of Genesis.


Gaiman wrote this for the website of the soon-to-be-released film, The Matrix. It’s pretty matrix-y.

Pages From a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky

The story is barely longer than the title. It is kind of a log of a search for a mysterious woman named “Scarlet.” Very atmospheric and vague, with no real resolution. Which is a classic modern short story. Also, another one written specifically for a Tori Amos related event. Apparently Gaiman and Amos are friends - which is one of those unexpected things you learn.

Inventing Aladdin

This one is a poem worth mentioning. It is a reference to The Arabian Nights, obviously. But it is also about Gaiman’s belief that stories, even ancient, retold stories, had their genesis in a real person.

The Monarch of the Glen

This is the one which is both a short story sequel to American Gods (which I haven’t read), and the return of Smith and Mr. Alice. It draws on the Beowulf story, but with a weird, modern, twist. Again, classic Gaiman, with its mix of legend, supernatural, and realistic.

One of the things I am struck with when it comes to Neil Gaiman is this: he has a someone disturbing knack for writing about the most horrible parts of human nature. I mean, he makes torture and cruelty come way too alive for comfort. But along with that comes an amazing sense of compassion - one that I find mostly lacking in the conservative/religious/uptight sorts that clutch their pearls about his sort of writing.

Just as an example, my Evangelical former tribe has been tying themselves in moral and ethical knots to try to explain why it is okay to take a racist and xenophobic approach to refugees. You know, things like separating families seeking asylum, putting kids in cages, and stripping the citizenship of people who did nothing wrong. In contrast, here is Gaiman on refugees. The simplicity of “it could be you” is basically a restatement of Christ’s commands. Do unto others. And yet, Gaiman, who isn’t “Christian” in the sense Evangelicals mean it, somehow manages to sound so much MORE like Christ than they do. Oh, and rather than xenophobic fear mongering and lies, he actually uses real facts. Why the F..K can’t Evangelicals show this kind of decency? I just don’t get it.

Anyway, this is an interesting book, with some worthwhile stories. Gaiman has an amazing imagination, his stories generally have something intriguing in them, and hey, my middle daughter loves them, and that is high praise indeed. My favorite still is The Graveyard Book - or maybe Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett. But this one was good too.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Channel Islands National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

When I was a kid, we used to camp throughout the year. During the hot days of summer, we would head for the mountains. During the cooler part of the year, we would camp at the beach. For the most part, we liked to camp at a place called Emma Wood State Beach, just west of Ventura. The campground is right on the rocky beach, so you can sit and watch the ocean during the day, and see the lights of the oil rigs at night. If it is a clear day, you can see across the channel to the string of islands about 20 miles offshore. 

(l-r) Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island
Picture taken from Rincon Parkway, 2015.

(l-r) Platforms "Gina," "Gail," "Gilda," and "Grace." 
Picture taken from Rincon Parkway, 2015.
The infamous Platform A is further to the west by about 20 miles. 
I'm pretty sure we crossed between Gail and Gilda on our boat ride to Santa Cruz Island.

 There are eight total Channel Islands. Santa Catalina Island is inhabited - and is a premier scuba diving destination. San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands are owned by the US Navy, which uses them for live-fire exercises. Ironically, the Navy is also committed to protecting some endemic species on these islands. It appears the occasional shelling is less damaging than the goat, sheep, cattle, and pig ranching that was done in the late 1800s. San Nicholas Island is also the location for the real-life story told in Island of the Blue Dolphins.

The remaining five islands, (west to east) San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara, are all part of the Channel Islands National Park. Anacapa and Santa Cruz were designated a National Monument back in 1938. The others were designated as part of the newly-created National Park in 1980. However, because they were private land, they had to be purchased (at exorbitant cost) from the landowners. This process took until well into the 1990s - and the last of the feral pigs weren’t exterminated until a few years ago.

Human habitation of the larger islands dates back at least 10,000 years, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the Mexican government granted large estates on the islands to ranchers. Over the years, goats, pigs, cattle, and especially sheep were raised on large ranches. These wreaked havoc on the local flora and fauna. 

 Scorpion Ranch, Santa Cruz Island. Now part of the national park.

What really started the push to preserve the islands, however, was a human-caused catastrophe. In 1969, what was then the largest oil spill in US history occurred. Even today, it is the third largest in US history. Over a hundred miles of coastline was fouled, thousands of birds died, plusa large numbers of fish and marine mammals. Southern California today is home to 23 million people - it was lower then, but it was still a highly populated area.  The catastrophe was enough to spur significant action. Our modern environmental laws stem from this incident. The EPA. The Clean Water Act. Actually, pretty much everything the current Administration and the GOP wish to dismantle. Here in California, the incident led to state legislation such as the California Environmental Quality Act, and the formation of the California Coastal Commission. In addition, since that time, California has refused to permit any further offshore drilling within its 3 mile limits. You can read more about the spill here

 I'm pretty sure this is "Gilda," taken from the boat on the way back from Santa Cruz Island, 2018.

The spill also led to efforts to preserve the unique ecosystems of the Channel Islands - a rare bit of wilderness just a few miles from one of the most populous areas of the United States.

One unique feature of the park is that more than half of it is underwater. Significant portions of the ocean surrounding the islands is a nature preserve, leading to vibrant underwater ecosystems and fantastic diving locations.

I had previously been scuba diving off of Anacapa Island, but had never actually set foot on the land. Recently, the kids and I took a boat out to the largest island, Santa Cruz Island, for a day of hiking and exploration.

Santa Cruz Island is interesting in that only a quarter of it is owned by the Federal Government. The rest was donated over time by the original owners to the Nature Conservancy. This portion of the island is kept largely wild, with visitation restricted. The Federal portion is more accessible, with hiking trails and a campground.

The Channel Islands are also an interesting demonstration of Charles Darwin’s famous theory. Darwin noted that isolated island populations of animals developed unique traits over time. In particular, island creatures tend to grow either larger than usual, or smaller than usual. This is a phenomenon which is seen all around the world, and the Channel Islands are no exception.

While hiking, we saw several examples of this phenomenon.

First is the Island Fox. Regular sized foxes are common in North America. Kit Foxes are a much smaller version. Where I live in Bakersfield, you can find San Joaquin Kit Foxes, which are the size of medium-small dogs. But on the Channel Islands, you can find even smaller foxes - more closely related to full sized foxes than true kit foxes - an endemic species which nearly went extinct as a result of human interference. Here is what happened: pigs were brought over to the islands, and became feral. The pigs destroyed fox burrows, but also attracted Golden Eagles, which ate both the piglets and fox cubs. As a result, the foxes were on the brink of extinction - only 100 or so were left. The Nature Conservancy and the NPS worked together to save them. The pigs were finally exterminated by 2006. Native Bald Eagles were reintroduced to the island. These were territorial, and kept the Golden Eagles away - and Bald Eagles eat fish, not foxes. Recently, Island Foxes were removed from the Endangered Species List - a fantastic success story. You can read more here. Island Foxes lack the usual fear of humans, so they can be a nuisance. They will steal your food if you are not careful. On the other hand, they are not aggressive and won’t bite unless handled. And, they are seriously cute. Roughly the size of cats but weighing less, they have a lot of cat-like mannerisms, making them irresistible for kids.

 Island Fox, Santa Cruz Island, 2018

Another endemic species with a small size is the Island Fence Lizard. These are smaller than their close relative, the Western Fence Lizard. There were several other bird and reptile species which are considered sub-species unique to the island, but the differences are more minor.

Finally, there is the Island Scrub Jay. There are two mainland species of Scrub Jay here in the western United States, the California Scrub Jay, and the Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay. The Island version looks similar to the California version, but is significantly - 50% - bigger. It also is a strikingly rich blue, and has a different call than other jays. DNA evidence suggests that it split from its mainland cousins about 150,000 years ago - which coincides with when the islands likely were separated from the mainland. 

 Island Scrub Jay, Santa Cruz Island, 2018

In addition to the abundant wildlife underwater, on the land, and in the air; Channel Islands National Park contains great views, memorable hikes, and beautiful clear water.

The easiest way to get to the islands is via boat. While I know people who have kayaked the 10-20 miles across the channel, the average mortal will generally want to catch a ride with Island Packers. Scuba divers can take a trip on one of several boats to a variety of destinations. I haven’t gone diving much since we had kids - just sporadically - and I am not up on which boats are the best these days, so ask around a bit.  

Scorpion Bay from the trail. 
 The north coast of Santa Cruz Island from Cavern Point.

Anacapa Island from the boat on the way to Santa Cruz Island.

Common Dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel. 
There are an estimated 10,000 of these that live here. 
The eastern side of Santa Cruz Island. 

Anacapa Island from Santa Cruz Island.
Anacapa is actually three separate islands separated by narrow channels.
View from the Smuggler's Bay Trail. 
An abandoned oil rig near the centerline of the island.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

Source of book: I own this.

This was September’s choice for our “Literary Lush” book club. The actual choice was the first three in the five-novel series, but I only read the first this time. We were about evenly split between those who read all three, those who read two, and those who read one.

The books are semi-autobiographical. St. Aubyn grew up in an aristocratic family, with a father who abused him in about every way possible, including sexually. He became addicted to heroin, but eventually got clean and became a writer.

Each of the five books observes a sort of classical unity. Each tells of a single day, which stands in for an epoch in the life of the central character, Patrick Melrose. The first two books came out in 1992, and the third in 1994. St. Aubyn then turned to other projects, before writing the final two books in 2005 and 2012, respectively. The edition we bought has all five in one book.

The books are each fairly short, somewhere between a novella and a short story. Perhaps you could say they are novella length, but short story in spirit. 

The first book, Never Mind, tells of a day in the life of the very young (age 6 or 7?) Patrick and his parents. It starts with his mother drugging and drinking herself into marginal functionality and setting off for a day with a friend. It ends with three couples having a really awkward and pointless dinner party. By that time, Patrick has experienced his father’s abuse (in a really rough scene), seen his mother ignore him, and find the only ray of hope in the small kindness of an American woman - perhaps the only semi-sensible character. And she still has all kinds of issues.

Never Mind felt like a bit of an introduction - which it is. I probably should have read the other two as well, in retrospect. I will in the future.

What I can say from the one book is that the writing is excellent. St. Aubyn is able to convey pictures with a minimum of words, to open a universe with a few sentences or a paragraph. Even though the subject matter is pretty horrifying, it is so easy to be drawn in by the way the story is told. There are so many great lines, and various members of our book club had their own favorites. Here are the ones I wrote down.

The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did.

Or how about this one - a real favorite with our club:

‘On the way back, I found myself thinking that everybody who is meeting for dinner tonight will probably have said something unkind about everybody else. I know you’ll think it’s very primaitive and American of me, but why do people spend the evening with people they’ve spent the day insulting?’
‘So as to have something insulting to say about them tomorrow.’
‘But that’s what the charm is: being malicious about everybody except the person you are with, who then glows with the privilege of exemption.’

Or how about this poisonous conversation at the dinner party?

‘Ethics is not the study of what we do, my dear David, but what we ought to do,’ said Victor.
‘That’s why it’s such a waste of time, old boy,’ said Nicholas cheerfully.
‘Why do you think it’s superior to be amoral?’ Anne asked Nicholas.
‘It’s not a question of being superior,’ he said, exposing his cavernous nostrils to Anne, ‘it just springs from a desire not be be a bore or a prig.’
‘Everything about Nicholas is superior,’ said David, ‘and even if he were a bore or a prig, I’m sure he would be a superior one.’
‘Thank you, David,’ said Nicholas with determine complacency.
‘Only in the English language,’ said Victor, ‘can one be “a bore”, like being a lawyer or a pastry cook, making boredom into a profession - in other languages a person is simply boring, a temporary state of affairs. The question is, I suppose, whether this points to a greater intolerance towards boring people, or an especially intense quality of boredom among the English.’
It’s because you’re such a bunch of boring old farts, thought Bridget.
Yvette took away the soup plates and closed the door behind her. The candles flickered, and the painted peasants came alive again for a moment.
‘What one aims for,’ said David, ‘is ennui.’
‘Of course,’ said Anne, ‘it’s more that just French for our old friend boredom. It’s boredom plus money, or boredom plus arrogance. It’s I-find-everything-boring, therefore I’m fascinating. But it doesn’t seem to occur to people that you can’t have a world picture and then not be part of it.’

It’s an interesting experience, enjoying the repartee while thoroughly loathing the people involved.

I intend to read the rest of the books, which I expect will explain a lot more of the story. The writing is good, and the autobiographical nature of the books add an extra dimension.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this.

Regular readers of my blog know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. I try to read one of his books every year. Past reads since I started writing about them are:

Barsetshire Chronicles:

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Other books:

These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.


Orley Farm is one of Trollope’s stand-alone novels, and the last of the set of Dover paperbacks I was given in my teens by the husband of my violin teacher. Along with some Wodehouse and a few hardback Dickens, he gave me five Trollopes - I had never heard of him, but fell in love.

While Orley Farm had its moments, it was not my favorite of Trollope’s books. In large part, this stems from two factors. First, while Trollope is usually fairly gentle with his characters, writing few true villains, and making everyone human; in this case, he seemed more to dislike his characters than like them. For the most part, they are rather unlikeable, and it is difficult to really be in sympathy with them, the way one is in most of Trollope’s novels. It isn’t the presence of unpleasant characters so much as it is the lack of humanizing traits which are the problem. I found it uncharacteristically difficult to understand the motivations, and thus found many of the characters to be caricatures rather than the truly three dimensional inhabitants of the typical Trollopean world.

The second factor is somewhat related to the first. I feel that Trollope wrote this book more to complain about lawyers and the British legal system than to explore the psychology of his characters. Whatever Trollope is as an author, he isn’t Charles Dickens, and he isn’t particularly adept at the use of caricature in satire. Rather, Trollope’s strength as a satirical and social writer is his ability to humanize the victims of injustice - and especially injustice inflicted with good, reforming motivations. Thus, we can sympathize with Mr. Harding even as we may agree that he is the recipient of a sinecure that probably should be reformed. We can feel for Carrie Brattle, whose status as a “fallen woman” gives her no real chance at a decent life. We can even understand the loathsome Mrs. Proudie and her attempts to further her religious beliefs, even as we hate her methods - and even perhaps the substance of those beliefs. She is all the more real for being humanly understandable.

This was my biggest problem with Orley Farm. I had a hard time finding a character who was really fleshed out, particularly for the first half of the book.

A bit of background might help here. Trollope was the son of a failed barrister. His father never really made a good go of it in law, and was forever in debt. His mother, however, was a skilled writer. Her books aren’t much read today, and she wasn’t a world class author, but she was financially successful, and her books were indeed influential. Domestic Manners of the Americans was her most successful, and many of her observations about American arrogance and hypocrisy still ring true. She also wrote an anti-slavery novel which inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, and an “industrial novel,” about class injustice in the age of the Industrial Revolution - another book which inspired more famous later authors. So, with her husband failing to make a living, it fell to Frances Trollope to support the family with writing.

Young Anthony eschewed the law, and went to work for the Postal Service, where he invented the pillar letter box, and found time to write. While he never studied law, he absorbed a large amount of knowledge about it, and his books generally get the legal details right. Although the British legal system of the Victorian Era is much different from the 21st Century American legal system. (I could write a whole post about all of the differences…)

What Anthony never seems to have understood about the law was the idea that the criminal law system is supposed to be biased in favor of the accused - in large part to counteract the power of the State. In theory (although not as often in practice), this should result in a very small number of false convictions - but should, by design, allow a number of guilty persons to go free. That this isn’t necessarily the case in practice is beside the point. Yes, money still tends to get one off, and impoverished people of color tend to be falsely convinced more often than wealthy whites. But the problem isn’t that we make it too easy for those horrid criminal defense lawyers to get people off.

But that is precisely the point Trollope wants to make. He honestly seems to believe that guilty people shouldn’t be defended, and that neutral witnesses shouldn’t ever have their credibility attacked. As a lawyer, this is an offensive idea. And in general, Trollope is so much more subtle than this, which is why I was disappointed.

The plot is basically this. (Spoiler alert!)
 My Dover paperback edition has the original J. E. Millais illustrations.

Sir Joseph Mason the elder was a wealthy man, with two major estates. After his first wife died, leaving a grown son, Sir Joseph remarried a young woman barely out of her teens - a woman who was beautiful but under challenging financial circumstances. She marries him out of need and pressure from her family, not love. They have a child together, and soon thereafter, Sir Joseph dies.

A last minute codicil to his will leaves Orley Farm - the lesser estate - to the infant. The previous will would have left everything, except for the small allowance to the widow required by law, to the older son. The question was, did young Lady Mason forge the codicil?

The first trial - the probate - takes place after the death, and is alluded to in the book. The real action occurs twenty-one years later, when the infant, Lucious, comes of age. He angers the son-in-law of the lawyer who worked for Sir Joseph. Said son-in-law, himself a lawyer, goes through the old documents and discovers evidence which may be in favor of a finding of forgery. He contacts Joseph Jr., the older son, and incites him to seek a prosecution of Lady Mason for perjury and forgery. That trial is the centerpiece of the story.

This being Trollope, the book is roughly 650 pages long, and pretty dense. It also has a number of subplots involving the periphery players. Lady Mason’s lawyer has domestic troubles because his neglected wife assumes he is having an affair with Lady Mason. Lady Mason’s neighbor and old friend, Sir Peregrine Orme, falls in love with her, while his son unsuccessfully pursues the daughter of a judge - she instead falls in love with an idealistic young barrister who ends up working on Lady Orme’s case. Even the witnesses have their own little dramas going. Everyone connected with the case is somehow involved in the story.

As usual with Trollope, the question isn’t really if Lady Mason is guilty. Rather, it is how each of the characters response to the situation. Including her. There is the legal question, of course: will a jury find her guilty? There is the moral case: what would real justice look like? And there is the social question: guilty or not, will she and her son lose their reputations?

So much about this is good. The book had some great moments in it. If only Trollope had allowed himself to actually understand how a lawyer could - and should - defend a guilty client. I think he was a bit blinded by his own upbringing. I wasn’t able to find out much of the circumstances of his father’s failure, but it is entirely possible that the idealistic Felix Graham is meant to be a stand-in for the elder Mr. Trollope. He is hopeless at the task of doing his best even when he doesn’t believe in his case. And he is advised that maybe he should pursue his writing instead. (Of course, in this particular world, he also is able to marry a wealthy woman.)

I think another factor here is that Trollope was by nature and inclination, a conservative. He preferred the High Church to the Low Church, was suspicious of reforms of all kinds, and staunchly supported the existing class system, even though he wasn’t a winner in that system. Thus, I think that he couldn’t - despite really making an effort - see the moral injustice inherent in giving property to one child while leaving the other destitute. Hey, Primogeniture has a long and storied history, even if it was brutal to younger children, and undoubtedly fed the unending wars of the last, well, millennia. After all, a bunch of younger sons without money, whose class meant they couldn’t make a living by working, with few prospects...hey, might as well go to war and try to win an award from the king, right? Trollope really does try. But he can’t quite go there. Rules is rules.

I think this is ultimately why I had a hard time feeling the characters. Lady Mason is a great character, for the most part. But Trollope’s conservatism can’t allow her to truly stick to her guns. In a later (or earlier) era, she could have been the hero of the book. Likewise, Lucious is a real prick, and it is impossible to like him. I suspect Trollope didn’t want him to be a sympathetic victim - he somehow had to deserve tragedy. Thus, of the main players in the central drama, the most believable are those I would call the true villains. Mr. Dockwrath, the lawyer who stirs everything up in retaliation for losing his lease, ignores the advice of his much wiser wife, grubs for as much as he can get, and ultimately loses everything. He thoroughly deserves it. But he is also believable: I know people like that, and they often end the same way. Likewise, I know people like Joseph Mason the younger, consumed with a thirst for revenge because he feels cheated out of what he “deserves,” namely everything. But again, he is believable. He is still, 25 years later, pissed off at his father for refusing to “act his age” and remain a widower. Instead, he fell for the charming young lady (who he blames entirely for his father’s actions), with the result being an unwanted younger brother who might get some of the inheritance.

Some of the minor characters are really good. I liked Judge Stavely and his family - of all the people, I would most like to meet them in person. Faced with the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with a poor, unattractive, but intelligent man, he supports her, remembering his own courtship. I also liked the lawyer, Mr. Furnival. He is very imperfect, clearly, but very human - and a rather conscientious lawyer. I’d want to hire someone like him: aware of his limitations, devoted to seeing his clients’ cases through, quietly competent, and in no need of self-aggrandizement.

As in any Trollope novel, there is much good writing, and a number of memorable lines. Here are a few that stood out to me.

From the first chapter, where Trollope introduces the book:

It is not true that a rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Were it true, I should call this story ‘The Great Orley Farm Case.’ But who would ask for the ninth number of a serial work burthened with so very uncouth an appellation? Thence, and therefore, - Orley Farm.
I say so much at commencing in order that I may have an opportunity of explaining that this book of mine will not be devoted in any special way to rural delights. The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure. No such aspirations are mine.

Or, Mr. Furnival, giving the common - and true - lament of us lawyers:

‘We lawyers are very much abused now-a-days,’ said Mr. Furnival… ‘but I hardly know how the world would get on without us.’

There is a great scene involving Sir Joseph the younger and his wife. While he is extravagantly rich, she is a penny-pinching shrew. Their food is almost inedible, and they really can’t entertain, because she refuses to have proper and sufficient provender for the spread. Trollope describes their attempt at a Christmas dinner, and what followed.

And then they all went to church. Mrs. Mason would not on any account have missed church on Christmas-day or a Sunday. It was a cheap duty, and therefore rigidly performed.

There is another extended musing which is quite fun. I am reading a book on the intentional “moulding” of a wife - I wonder if Trollope was familiar with the facts or not - so this quote seems apropos. It also is percipient on a few timeless questions: is trying to turn a spouse into what you wish they were ever a good idea? And what is the real reason creeps like Roy Moore want to find much younger girls? Anyway, here is the quote, which comes after we are introduced to Felix Graham, and the “engagement” he is in with his ward - at the insistence of her father, when she was a mere child. She was not, in any meaningful sense, consulted.

In speaking of the character and antecedents of Felix Graham I have said that he was moulding a wife for himself. The idea of a wife thus moulded to fit a man’s own grooves, and educated to suit matrimonial purposes according to the exact views of the future husband was by no means original with him. Other men have moulded their wives, but I do not know that as a rule the practice has been found to answer. It is open, in the first place, to this objection, - that the moulder does not generally conceive such idea very early in life, and the idea when conceived must necessarily be carried out on a young girl. Such a plan is the result of much deliberate thought, and has generally arisen from long observation, on the part of the thinker, of the unhappiness arising from marriages in which there has been no moulding. Such a frame of mind comes upon a bachelor, perhaps about his thirty-fifth year, and then he goes to work with a girl of fourteen. The operation takes some ten years, at the end of which the moulded bride regards her lord as an old man. On the whole I think that the ordinary plan is the better, and even the safer. Dance with a girl three times, and if you like the light of her eye and the tone of voice with which she, breathless, answers your little questions about horseflesh and music - about affairs masculine and feminine - then take the leap in the dark. There is danger, no doubt; but the moulded wife is, I think, more dangerous.

Don’t get hung up on the Victorian nonsense - Trollope was a product of his time. Just enjoy the gentle snark.

My final quote is about Judge Stavely, after he has essentially opened the door to the possibility of Felix Graham marrying his daughter Madeleine.

But the judge was an odd man in many of the theories of his life. One of them, with reference to his children, was very odd, and altogether opposed to the usual practice of the world. It was this, - that they should be allowed, as far as was practicable, to do what they liked. Now the general opinion of the world is certainly quite the reverse - namely this, that children, as long as they are under the control of their parents, should be hindered and prevented in those things to which they are most inclined. Of course the world in general, in carrying out this practice, excuses it by an assertion, - made to themselves or others - that children customarily like those things which they ought not to like. But the judge had an idea quite opposed to this. Children, he said, if properly trained, would like those things which were good for them. Now it may be that he thought his daughter had been properly trained.

I am somewhat of this mindset. Coming from a religious tradition which is fundamentally authoritarian - and increasingly so - I have had my own bit of pressure (as an adult, by the way) to order my life, not according to what I want and believe is best for my family, but according to the preferences of others. Or, to be more accurate, I have been pressured to pressure my wife to conform to the expectations of others. Because in a patriarchal religious tradition, women face most of the expectations. I think Judge Staveley was ahead of his time in this idea that children are, when it comes to decisions about their future, entitled to choose their own lives.

I don’t want this review to sound too negative. While this isn’t my favorite Trollope book, it still is good, just flawed. If you haven’t discovered Trollope, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first book, because it lacks the best traits of his writing: psychological subtlety, sympathetic characters, and a wry distrust of convention even as he defends it. I’d go with the Barchester Chronicles, or perhaps with The Bertrams or Castle Richmond as starters.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Prince's Progress and Other Poems by Christina Rossetti

Source of book: I own the complete poems of Christina Rossetti

I recall, back when I was in single digits and first reading somewhat more grown up literature, reading a set from the 1950s from Collier’s, entitled The Junior Classics. My mom must have found it at a thrift store - they have gotten quite expensive these days. I “appropriated” the set when I got my own room, and took them with me when I moved out. Sorry mom. Sort of. I know you will be happy that my kids have read them too.

Anyway, the final volume of the set was dedicated to poetry, and it was through that book that I gained my lifelong love of poetry. I can even tell you the first poem that I truly loved: “The Bee” by Emily Dickinson. I don’t remember which poems specifically, but I also remember that I enjoyed Sara Teasdale, Robert Frost, and Christina Rossetti. My library lacks Teasdale, but I regularly read the others. While I have come to love many others, I still find that my first poetic loves speak to me in a special way.

When I started writing about my reading, first on Facebook, and then on my blog, I decided I was going to make a concerted effort to read poetry regularly, and more systematically, rather than the random and sadly infrequent way I had been. A few years back, I wrote about Rossetti’s first collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems. The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems is her second collection, written four years later.

I was a little apprehensive about reading Rossetti again. In the time since I last read her, I have gone through a spiritually traumatic time. We left our longtime church in 2017, after essentially being forced out due to our political beliefs. Our former religious tradition hitched its wagon to a white nationalist political movement and a man who embodies the opposite of Christ and His teachings in every imaginable way. In the runup to this, my wife and I started seriously processing our experiences in Christian Patriarchy. So it has been a bumpy ride. I was worried, therefore, because Rossetti wrote a lot of religious - devoutly religious - poetry. I’m not sure which worried me more: the potential triggers, or hating the poems finding myself disillusioned with one of my early loves.

Fortunately, neither happened. What did happen is that I discovered again how raw, genuine, personal, and compassionate Rossetti’s faith was. Even the ones that didn’t particularly speak to me were never self righteous, pious, or smug. She wore her lacerated heart on her sleeve. Rossetti’s emotionality and vulnerability are touching, and it is impossible to doubt her genuine quest for the Divine.

Also striking was just how personal some of the poems were when it came to her own sorrow: she was unlucky in love, and never married, despite her desire to do so. She turned down three different suitors, two because of religious incompatibility. One also wonders if she felt she would have to give up too much to enter into a Victorian marriage. Whatever the case, lost love and romantic disappointment are recurring themes throughout this collection. For example, the title poem is a long narrative of a prince who delays returning to his princess due to a series of temptations that he gives in to, only to find she has died. Some are similarly obvious about those themes, while others just hint at the cause of her heartache. Overall, I would say this collection tends toward the darker side of her writing.

Here are my favorites from the collection.

Let me start off with what was certainly one of the first of her poems I read as a child. It brought back memories of sitting and reading - and reading the poems aloud to hear the rhythm of the words.

Spring Quiet

Gone were but the Winter,
Come were but the Spring,
I would go to a covert
Where the birds sing;

Where in the whitethorn
Singeth a thrush,
And a robin sings
In the holly-bush.

Full of fresh scents
Are the budding boughs
Arching high over
A cool green house:

Full of sweet scents,
And whispering air
Which sayeth softly:
"We spread no snare;

"Here dwell in safety,
Here dwell alone,
With a clear stream
And a mossy stone.

"Here the sun shineth
Most shadily;
Here is heard an echo
Of the far sea,
Though far off it be."

That’s probably the most optimistic poem in this collection. Here is another that I remember from my childhood:


Winter is cold-hearted
Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weather-cock
Blown every way:
Summer days for me
When every leaf is on its tree;

When Robin's not a beggar,
And Jenny Wren's a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing,
Over the wheat-fields wide,
And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
Swings from side to side,

And blue-black beetles transact business,
And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
That no time be lost,
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive.

Before green apples blush,
Before green nuts embrown,
Why, one day in the country
Is worth a month in town;
Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
That days drone elsewhere.

The next one is a bit darker, a conversation between two lovers - one living, and one dead yet not at peace.

The Poor Ghost
'Oh whence do you come, my dear friend, to me,
With your golden hair all fallen below your knee,
And your face as white as snowdrops on the lea,
And your voice as hollow as the hollow sea?'

'From the other world I come back to you,
My locks are uncurled with dripping drenching dew.
You know the old, whilst I know the new:
But to-morrow you shall know this too.'

'Oh not to-morrow into the dark, I pray;
Oh not to-morrow, too soon to go away:
Here I feel warm and well-content and gay:
Give me another year, another day.'

'Am I so changed in a day and a night
That mine own only love shrinks from me with fright,
Is fain to turn away to left or right
And cover up his eyes from the sight?'

'Indeed I loved you, my chosen friend,
I loved you for life, but life has an end;
Through sickness I was ready to tend:
But death mars all, which we cannot mend.

'Indeed I loved you; I love you yet,
If you will stay where your bed is set,
Where I have planted a violet,
Which the wind waves, which the dew makes wet.'

'Life is gone, then love too is gone,
It was a reed that I leant upon:
Never doubt I will leave you alone
And not wake you rattling bone with bone.

'I go home alone to my bed,
Dug deep at the foot and deep at the head,
Roofed in with a load of lead,
Warm enough for the forgotten dead.

'But why did your tears soak through the clay,
And why did your sobs wake me where I lay?
I was away, far enough away:
Let me sleep now till the Judgment Day.'

I love the ambiguity here. Has he really forgotten her? Has he married another? Or is he really still mourning her? Does she resent being summoned or not? There is a deliciousness in what is left unsaid.

The next poem is an interesting take on wind and the changing of the seasons.

A Year’s Windfalls

On the wind of January
Down flits the snow,
Travelling from the frozen North
As cold as it can blow.
Poor robin redbreast,
Look where he comes;
Let him in to feel your fire,
And toss him of your crumbs.

On the wind in February
Snowflakes float still,
Half inclined to turn to rain,
Nipping, dripping, chill.
Then the thaws swell the streams,
And swollen rivers swell the sea:—
If the winter ever ends
How pleasant it will be!

In the wind of windy March
The catkins drop down,
Curly, caterpillar-like,
Curious green and brown.
With concourse of nest-building birds
And leaf-buds by the way,
We begin to think of flowers
And life and nuts some day.

With the gusts of April
Rich fruit-tree blossoms fall,
On the hedged-in orchard-green,
From the southern wall.
Apple-trees and pear-trees
Shed petals white or pink,
Plum-trees and peach-trees;
While sharp showers sink and sink.

Little brings the May breeze
Beside pure scent of flowers,
While all things wax and nothing wanes
In lengthening daylight hours.
Across the hyacinth beds
The wind lags warm and sweet,
Across the hawthorn tops,
Across the blades of wheat.

In the wind of sunny June
Thrives the red rose crop,
Every day fresh blossoms blow
While the first leaves drop;
White rose and yellow rose
And moss-rose choice to find,
And the cottage cabbage-rose
Not one whit behind.

On the blast of scorched July
Drives the pelting hail,
From thunderous lightning-clouds, that blot
Blue heaven grown lurid-pale.
Weedy waves are tossed ashore,
Sea-things strange to sight
Gasp upon the barren shore
And fade away in light.

In the parching August wind
Corn-fields bow the head,
Sheltered in round valley depths,
On low hills outspread.
Early leaves drop loitering down
Weightless on the breeze,
First fruits of the year's decay
From the withering trees.

In brisk wind of September
The heavy-headed fruits
Shake upon their bending boughs
And drop from the shoots;
Some glow golden in the sun,
Some show green and streaked,
Some set forth a purple bloom,
Some blush rosy-cheeked.

In strong blast of October
At the equinox,
Stirred up in his hollow bed
Broad ocean rocks;
Plunge the ships on his bosom,
Leaps and plunges the foam,—
It's oh! for mothers' sons at sea,
That they were safe at home.

In slack wind of November
The fog forms and shifts;
All the world comes out again
When the fog lifts.
Loosened from their sapless twigs
Leaves drop with every gust;
Drifting, rustling, out of sight
In the damp or dust.

Last of all, December,
The year's sands nearly run,
Speeds on the shortest day,
Curtails the sun;
With its bleak raw wind
Lays the last leaves low,
Brings back the nightly frosts,
Brings back the snow.

The next one is a bit of an anecdote as a metaphor for Rossetti’s own lack of luck in love.

The Queen of Hearts

How comes it, Flora, that, whenever we
Play cards together, you invariably,
However the pack parts,
Still hold the Queen of Hearts?

I've scanned you with a scrutinizing gaze,
Resolved to fathom these your secret ways:
But, sift them as I will,
Your ways are secret still.

I cut and shuffle; shuffle, cut, again;
But all my cutting, shuffling, proves in vain:
Vain hope, vain forethought too;
The Queen still falls to you.

I dropped her once, prepense; but, ere the deal
Was dealt, your instinct seemed her loss to feel:
'There should be one card more,'
You said, and searched the floor.

I cheated once; I made a private notch
In Heart-Queen's back, and kept a lynx-eyed watch;
Yet such another back
Deceived me in the pack:

The Queen of Clubs assumed by arts unknown
An imitative dint that seemed my own;
This notch, not of my doing,
Misled me to my ruin.

It baffles me to puzzle out the clue,
Which must be skill, or craft, or luck in you:
Unless, indeed, it be
Natural affinity.

Of the more religiously themed poems, three stood out. (I’ll quote the final one later.)

What Would I Give

What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through,
Instead of this heart of stone ice-cold whatever I do!
Hard and cold and small, of all hearts the worst of all.

What would I give for words, if only words would come!
But now in its misery my spirit has fallen dumb.
O merry friends, go your own way, I have never a word to say.

What would I give for tears! Not smiles but scalding tears,
To wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years,
To wash the stain ingrain, and to make me clean again.

I’ve mentioned that I love sonnets - I love the rigid form, the balanced sections, the need to make ideas concise and yet linked. I even wrote some technically correct (but artistically amateurish) sonnets during high school. I can’t find them now, which is probably just as well. This sonnet is a bit of a riff on Ecclesiastes.

Vanity of Vanities

Ah, woe is me for pleasure that is vain,
Ah, woe is me for glory that is past:
Pleasure that bringeth sorrow at the last,
Glory that at the last bringeth no gain!
So saith the sinking heart; and so again
It shall say till the mighty angel-blast
Is blown, making the sun and moon aghast
And showering down the stars like sudden rain.
And evermore men shall go fearfully
Bending beneath their weight of heaviness;
And ancient men shall lie down wearily,
And strong men shall rise up in weariness;
Yea, even the young shall answer sighingly
Saying one to another: How vain it is!

The next poem is - in my opinion - one of Rossetti’s best. It is haunting, lacerating, full of agony - and nakedly honest.



I nursed it in my bosom while it lived,
         I hid it in my heart when it was dead;
In joy I sat alone, even so I grieved
         Alone and nothing said.

I shut the door to face the naked truth,
         I stood alone,--I faced the truth alone,
Stripped bare of self-regard or forms or ruth
         Till first and last were shown.

I took the perfect balances and weighed;
         No shaking of my hand disturbed the poise;
Weighed, found it wanting: not a word I said,
         But silent made my choice.

None know the choice I made; I make it still.
         None know the choice I made and broke my heart,
Breaking mine idol: I have braced my will
         Once, chosen for once my part.

I broke it at a blow, I laid it cold,
         Crushed in my deep heart where it used to live.
My heart dies inch by inch; the time grows old,
         Grows old in which I grieve.


I have a room whereinto no one enters
         Save I myself alone:
         There sits a blessed memory on a throne,
There my life centres.

While winter comes and goes--O tedious comer!--
         And while its nip-wind blows;
         While bloom the bloodless lily and warm rose
Of lavish summer.

If any should force entrance he might see there
         One buried yet not dead,
         Before whose face I no more bow my head
Or bend my knee there;

But often in my worn life's autumn weather
         I watch there with clear eyes,
        And think how it will be in Paradise
When we're together.

While I think Rossetti is speaking of her rejection of her suitors, I think this poem resonates as a description of a certain kind of grief. The grief one feels when one has to make a horrible choice, one in which there is no winning, just losing less badly. One where one, perhaps, must make a choice to do the moral thing, even though the cost is devastatingly high. For her, marrying outside her religion (in an era when Protestants and Catholics were still deeply divided) was a bridge too far. Having had to make a number of my own hard choices on the basis of conscience over the last couple of years, I really felt this poem hit home. I’m still grieving.

The final poem is another devastating one, this time with a religious theme. It could be the theme of our own time, and our modern-day Pharisees who refuse to see the vulnerable as Christ in disguise.

Despised and Rejected

My sun has set, I dwell
In darkness as a dead man out of sight;
And none remains, not one, that I should tell
To him mine evil plight
This bitter night.
I will make fast my door
That hollow friends may trouble me no more.

'Friend, open to Me.'—Who is this that calls?
Nay, I am deaf as are my walls:
Cease crying, for I will not hear
Thy cry of hope or fear.
Others were dear,
Others forsook me: what art thou indeed
That I should heed
Thy lamentable need?
Hungry should feed,
Or stranger lodge thee here?

'Friend, My Feet bleed.
Open thy door to Me and comfort Me.'
I will not open, trouble me no more.
Go on thy way footsore,
I will not rise and open unto thee.

'Then is it nothing to thee? Open, see
Who stands to plead with thee.
Open, lest I should pass thee by, and thou
One day entreat My Face
And howl for grace,
And I be deaf as thou art now.
Open to Me.'

Then I cried out upon him: Cease,
Leave me in peace:
Fear not that I should crave
Aught thou mayst have.
Leave me in peace, yea trouble me no more,
Lest I arise and chase thee from my door.
What, shall I not be let
Alone, that thou dost vex me yet?

But all night long that voice spake urgently:
'Open to Me.'
Still harping in mine ears:
'Rise, let Me in.'
Pleading with tears:
'Open to Me that I may come to thee.'
While the dew dropped, while the dark hours were cold:
'My Feet bleed, see My Face,
See My Hands bleed that bring thee grace,
My Heart doth bleed for thee,
Open to Me.'

So till the break of day:
Then died away
That voice, in silence as of sorrow;
Then footsteps echoing like a sigh
Passed me by,
Lingering footsteps slow to pass.
On the morrow
I saw upon the grass
Each footprint marked in blood, and on my door
The mark of blood for evermore.

When this collection came out in 1866, it was illustrated by Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I found a couple of them online, and figured it was worth including them in this post.