Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

The Edwardians The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Edwardians live next door to Downtown Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. Vita Sackville-West grew up during the time period she both lovingly details and skewers in The Edwardians, and after a sort of slow start, the book comes alive because of her inside knowledge. She occasionally drop names (King Edward, Mrs. Langtry), and admits that "No character in this book is wholly fictitious." I suppose if you were reading this in 1930, when King George was still alive (his coronation ends the book), then you were probably madly trying to figure out who was who (all without the trusty help of the internet!). I'm sure the book is full of themes, some of which were perfectly obvious (the passing of the torch from generation to generation, the need for women of high society to look and feel young, the messiness of affairs of the heart) and some which I probably missed in my haste to the finish the book (the more I like a book, the faster I read, and the more I miss). I have several favorite scenes. The women at the coronation fixing their hair after putting on their coronets and the harumphing of the women about how in King Edward's day things wouldn't have been as vulgar (the reader knows full well that King Edward's day was equally "vulgar" if not more so, leading one to question the evolving nature of vulgarity and manners). Teresa (who surprisingly became my favorite character) throwing a grand speech in Sebastian's face on Christmas Eve (you go girl! Love rules all). The entire book was a pleasure though (except for the awful end). I was sorry to turn the last page, always a good sign!



View all my reviews

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

Coming down from a Downton Abbey high, this made the landing much gentler and easy. Chevron (the estate in The Edwardians) might as well be next door to the denizens of Downtown Abbey. Although Downtown Abbey is definitely more Upstairs Downstairs than The Edwardians, all three share much in common; certain scenes in The Edwardians are from the servants' point of view; the clothes and dinner parties are lush; the adultery is hidden but rampant. The Edwardians was a slow start - I wasn't sure I liked any of the characters very much (I'm still not totally sure) but once Lady Sylvia started her affair with Sebastian, WHAM BAM - off it went. I particularly liked Teresa Spedding, the doctor's wife, and the scene where Sebastian makes a pass at her and she's throws a speech in his face, that was awesome. Good for her - she became much more likable.

I'm sure the book is full of themes I missed - the better the story, the faster I read, and the more I miss. There is certainly a theme about generations - that's pretty blatant. Lucy, Sebastian's awful mother, belongs to the King Edward generation; Sebastian (sitting in for Vita Sackville-West, I think), represents that World War I Lost Generation directly afterwards; Teresa and Phil also represent facets of the Lost Generation as well. The line at the end, in which the dowagers hurumph about the new generation and how things wouldn't have been like that in good old King Edward's time - the reader knows that the dowagers were saying that King Edward was a rake and a cad and things wouldn't have been like that in Queen Victoria's time - the passing of the torch is never easily done.

I dog eared some pages for later thought. The first, on page 90, was a reference to the kitchen people (as opposed to the other servants) as the "Bandar-log," which is straight out of The Jungle Book. From what little I've gleaned about the running of great houses in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, that's a pretty good metaphor and great and cool use of allusion.

Viola, telling Margaret Roehampton about the society in which they live:

"Very well, if you want the truth, then here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid -- too stupid to recognize their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which sometimes are artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real..."
Sounds a lot like high school, or the glitzy world of hip-hop, or Paris /Perez Hilton Land... After a century, some things are still exactly the same. The houses and clothes and cars might be different, but the motivations remain the same - and the A-list is still remarkably stupid.

A bit about the end - the awful end. I'm not sure how I wanted it to end, but certainly not like that. It's almost like Sackville-West wasn't sure how she wanted it to end, so she just dropped Sebastian off a cliff (not literally). There is certainly a bit of deus ex machina at play. Although I love, love, love the surprise! about Anquetil (who is simply a plot device) marrying Viola. (Teresa and Phil, both could have been plot devices as well, but come across as much more real and not cardboard, particularly Teresa; Anquetil felt like a cardboard cutout at the beginning and end).


Friday, August 26, 2011

Why Not Say What Happened by Ivana Lowell (2010)

I don't like gushy, self reflective, stream of consciousness memoirs. They are usually among my least favorite kinds of books - I think I liked textbooks better than memoirs. First person celebrity memoirs are the worst. I personally don't care about a celebrity's internal struggles with addiction or the sexual abuse they suffered as a child. You what I want from a celebrity steam of consciousness first person memoir? Gossip about other celebrities. The secrets of hollywood or broadway or royalty or government. I tend to avoid these kinds of memoirs like the plague.

I wish I remember why I put Ivana Lowell's Why Not Say What Happened on my list of books to read. I think maybe it was after reading that latest Mitford memoir by the Duchess of Devonshire, and this came up as a similar read. It's not a similar read. It was BETTER. I have now stress the "usually" part of my least favorite books. Because Ivana Lowell's memoir was everything I hate about this genre - except it was really good.

I think that's partly because she named names and didn't pull any punches (her being chased around a desk in a Weinstein's office comes instantly to mind). That made it a bit exhilarating. It felt fresh and fun. It was painfully sad - abuse, addiction, pain, sadness. But there was a bit tongue in cheek about the whole thing, the purposeful juxtaposition of wealth and privilege and parties with the Queen Mother and the Academy Awards with the hideous craziness and crazy hideousity of Ivana Lowell's life. She didn't take herself all that seriously.

Some reviews on Goodreads were particularly annoying about how this was another "poor little rich girl" story. First of all, why finish it then? Second, "poor little rich girl" stories are a genre in of themselves. There is a clearly a market and interest for them.

The Queen Mother's nickname among her uppercrust aristo cronies was "Cake." Who knew?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Little Ships: The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II by Louise Borden; illustrated by Michael Foreman (1997)

This is my second Louise Borden book in a row, both stories from World War II, this one about "the heroic rescue from Dunkirk." I like Borden's prose style - choppy and poetic at the same time; she always writes poetry. Her point of view - from a fisherman's daughter who (with her father's permission) dressed as a boy to accompany him on the journey to France. There are stories throughout history of girls dressing as boys to go to war (both fiction and nonfiction), and this makes a nice addition. Foreman's illustrations are good - I think it's hard to capture the true power of the sea, but he has a true mixture of what the day must have been like - beautiful, chaotic, terrible. The illustration of the troop ship heading to safety in England, with thousands of faces of soldiers lining the decks, passing the little yachts on their way to France and danger, was a particularly memorable illustration. I think the story of Dunkirk is a really interesting one - full of incredible bravery and terrible sadness. Although the heroism and courage of Dunkirk makes it seem like a victory, it's actually a terrible and terrifying defeat - the threat of Germany now looms over a weakened and scared England, and at this point it's all touch and go. But from this defeat certainly comes some great stories and moving speeches, Winston Churchill's "We shall go on to the end..." most stirring of all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu (2010)


Cute, almost but not quite precious, more than a bit surreal. I wish I knew more about how to describe art and illustration in a meaningful way. The pictures seem flat to me; they are all silk screen, which think is an arduous and time consuming process; knowing this fact makes me now think each illustration looks like really cute t-shirt. I loved the monochromatic color scheme; each story is in a different palette. I think Bear is gay - but I also think Frog and Toad are more than Friends too. My favorite scene is when the bunnies get sucked up into the vacuum cleaner - their coughing expressions are funny and really well illustrated.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Journey That Saved Curious George: the True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden; illustrated by Allan Drummond (2005)

Curious George turns 70 years old this fall, so I decided to have a birthday party here at the library and tell the story of Curious George's amazing escape from the Nazis - actually the authors escape from Paris with the manuscript on their back. It's an exciting little tale, and I think it will make a cool storytime subject; I'm going to combine it with other stories about World War II and of course the very first Curious George story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Woodrow Wilson by Louis Auchincloss (2000)

My second presidential sketch (and third sketch overall) by Louis Auchincloss. This one part of the Penguin Lives series. Not quite as good as Theodore Roosevelt but still quite good. This morning I went directly from reading Tom and Lorenzo's Project Runway blog to Woodrow Wilson and momentarily confused the style of the two - I thought to myself that this was almost (but not quite) "Blogging Woodrow Wilson" except refined and not so raw.



Woodrow Wilson always comes across as such a douche. Very rigid and old time Presbyterian. Except for when it comes to the ladies (except he's a very old school gentleman women have their place sort of guy, which still makes him douchey).


If Louis Auchincloss does nothing else, he makes you think about then and now in very interesting, thoughtful ways. For example, he writes that when Wilson went to Paris and the peace conference, he brought with a messiah complex that made it hard for him to compromise. Auchincloss calls this Wilson's "worst political fault." "His faith that he had, more than other leaders, a sense of the will of the common people, and that he was divinely ordained to carry it out... he never learned that the only leader who can take political advantage of the momentary enthusiasm of the common man is a dictator who can us its force to blast his way to power; a democrat must abide by the decision of those whom the common man has elected to represent him." Auchincloss uses the impeachment of President Clinton as an example of how a popular president still must live under the thumb of the common man's elected representatives. Our current president has tasted much of that same medicine as well. It will be interesting a century from now to see the Penguin Lives version of President Barack Obama.

Those turns of thoughtful and thought provoking phrases makes reading Louis Auchincloss such a pleasure. Here's another, this one about the concept of self determination. "It might be noted here that the principle of self determination is as difficult to apply in our day as it was in Wilson's Will it stop short of splitting our planet into an impossible small number of small, bickering nations? It may be well to remember of our two most revered presidents that Washington fought a war to affirm the doctrine, and Lincoln one to deny it."


It's obvious from the last chapters that the story Auchincloss really wants to tell is the League of Nations battle royale between Henry Cabot Lodge and Woodrow Wilson. There is high drama and catty bitchiness involved in this fight, which may have been based on Wilson's hasty remarriage after the death of his wife, which Lodge found intolerable and gauche. Kelly Green's hilariously short review on Goodreads "Henry Cabot Lodge was such a hater" says quite a bit about the book itself. I didn't take that away from the book though. Henry Cabot Lodge was makes a good ice blooded villain and foil for the goodness of Wilson, but Wilson himself is also inflexible, holier than thou, and really unable to compromise or find common ground.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Colonel Robert Ingersoll Speech

I read an excerpt of this speech in Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, she included it as a prime example of "waving the bloody shirt" during the time period in which Garfield was elected. I included the entire speech because part of it are so wonderfully scathing. My initial thoughts on reading the excerpt - and now the whole speech - is that Fox News was around even then.

Indianapolis Speech (1876)

Robert Green Ingersoll

Delivered to the Veteran Soldiers of the Rebellion.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, FELLOW CITIZENS AND CITIZEN SOLDIERS: -- I am opposed to the Democratic party, and I will tell you why. Every State that seceded from the United States was a Democratic State. Every ordinance of secession that was drawn was drawn by a Democrat. Every man that endeavored to tear the old flag from the heaven that it enriches was a Democrat. Every man that tried to destroy this nation was a Democrat. Every enemy this great republic has had for twenty years has been a Democrat. Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat. Every man that denied to the Union prisoners even the worm-eaten crust of famine, and when some poor, emaciated Union patriot, driven to insanity by famine, saw in an insane dream the face of his mother, and she beckoned him and he followed, hoping to press her lips once again against his fevered face, and when he stepped one step beyond the dead line the wretch that put the bullet through his loving throbbing heart was and is a Democrat.
Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat. The man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat. Every man that sympathized with the assassin -- every man glad that the noblest President ever elected was assassinated, was a Democrat. Every man that wanted the privilege of whipping another man to make him work for him for nothing and pay him with lashes on his naked back, was a Democrat. Every man that raised bloodhounds to pursue human beings was a Democrat. Every man that clutched from shrieking, shuddering, crouching mothers, babes from their breasts, and sold them into slavery, was a Democrat. Every man that impaired the credit of the United States, every man that swore we would never pay the bonds, every man that swore we would never redeem the greenbacks, every malinger of his country's credit, every calumniator of his country's honor, was a Democrat. Every man that resisted the draft, every man that hid in the bushes and shot at Union men simply because they were endeavoring to enforce the laws of their country, was a Democrat. Every man that wept over the corpse of slavery was a Democrat. Every man that cursed Abraham Lincoln because he issued the Proclamation of Emancipation -- the grandest paper since the Declaration of Independence -- every one of them was a Democrat. Every man that denounced the soldiers that bared their breasts to the storms of shot and shell for the honor of America and for the sacred rights of man, was a Democrat. Every man that wanted an uprising in the North, that wanted to release the rebel prisoners that they might burn down the homes of Union soldiers above the heads of their wives and children, while the brave husbands, the heroic fathers, were front in the front fighting for the honor of the old flag, every one of them was a Democrat. I am not yet through yet. Every man that believed this glorious nation of ours is a confederacy, every man that believed the old banner carried by our fathers over the fields of the Revolution; the old flag carried by our fathers over the fields of 1812; the glorious old banner carried by our brothers over the plains of Mexico; the sacred banner carried by our brothers over the cruel fields of the South, simply stood for a contract, simply stood for an agreement, was a Democrat. Every man who believed that any State could go out of the Union at its pleasure, every man that believed the grand fabric of the American Government could be made to crumble instantly into dust at the touch of treason, was a Democrat. Every man that helped to burn orphan asylums in New York, was a Democrat; every man that tried to fire the city of New York, although he knew that thousands would perish, and knew that the great serpent of flame leaping from buildings would clutch children from their mothers' arms -- every wretch that did it was a Democrat. Recollect it! Every man that tried to spread smallpox and yellow fever in the North, as the instrumentalities of civilized war, was a Democrat. Soldiers, every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given you be a Democrat. Every scar, every arm that is lacking, every limb that is gone, is a souvenir of a Democrat. I want you to recollect it. Every man that was the enemy of human liberty in this country was a Democrat. Every man that wanted the fruit of all the heroism of all the ages to turn to ashes upon the lips -- every one was a Democrat.
I am a Republican. I will tell you why: This is the only free Government in the world. The Republican party made it so. The Republican party took the chains from four millions of people. The Republican party, with the wand of progress, touched the auction- block and it became a school house, The Republican party put down the Rebellion, saved the nation, kept the old banner afloat in the air, and declared that slavery of every kind should be extirpated from the face of this continent. What more? I am a Republican because it is the only free party that ever existed. It is a party that has a platform as broad as humanity, a platform as broad as the human race, a party that says you shall have all the fruit of the labor of your hands, a party that says you may think for yourself, a party that says, no chains for the hands, no fetters for the soul.
I am a Republican because the Republican party says this country is a Nation, and not a confederacy. I am here in Indiana to speak, and I have as good a right to speak here as though I had been born on this stand -- not because the State flag of Indiana waves over me -- I would not know it if I should see it. You have the same right to speak in Illinois, not because the State flag of Illinois waves over you, but because that banner, rendered sacred by the blood od all heroes, waves over me. I am in favor of this being a Nation. Think of a man gratifying his entire ambition in the State of Rhode Island. We want this to be a Nation, and you cannot have a great, grand, splendid people without a great, grand, splendid country. The great plains the sublime mountains, the great rushing, roaring rivers, shores lashed by two oceans, and the grand anthem of Niagara, mingle and enter, into the character of every American citizen, and make him or tend to make him a great and grand character. I am for the Republican party because it says the Government has as much right, as much power, to protect its citizens at home as abroad. The Republican party does not say that you have to go away from home to get the protection of the Government. The Democratic party says the Government cannot march its troops into the South to protect the rights of the citizens. It is a lie. The Government claims the right, and it is conceded that the Government has the right, to go to your house, while you are sitting by your fireside with your wife and children about you and the old lady knitting, and the cat playing with the yarn, and everybody happy and serene -- the Government claims the right to go to your fireside and take you by force and put you into the army; take you down to the valley of the shadow of hell, by the ruddy, roaring guns, and make you fight for your flag. Now, that being so, when the war is over and your country is victorious, and you go back to your home, and a lot of Democrats want to trample upon your rights, I want to know if the Government that took you from your fireside and made you fight for it, I want to know if it is not bound to fight for you. The flag that will not protect its protectors is a dirty rag that contaminates the air in which it waves. The government that will not defend its defenders is a disgrace to the nations of the world. I am a Republican because the Republican party says, "We will protect the rights of American citizens at home, and if necessary we will march an army into any State to protect the rights of the humblest American citizen in that State." I am a Republican because that party allows me to be free -- allows me to do my own thinking in my own way. I am a Republican because it is a party grand enough and splendid enough and sublime enough to invite every human being in favor of liberty and progress to fight shoulder to shoulder for the advancement of mankind. It invites the Methodist, it invites the Catholic, it invites the Presbyterian and every kind of sectarian; it invites the Freethinker; it invites the infidel, provided he is in favor of giving to every other human being every chance and every right that he claims for himself. I am a Republican, I tell you. There is room in the Republican air for every wing; there is room on the Republican sea for every sail. Republicanism says to every man: "Let your soul be like an eagle; fly out in the great dome of thought, and question the stars for yourself." But the Democratic party says; "Be blind owls, sit on the dry limb of a dead tree, and hoot only when that party says hoot."
In the Republican party there are no followers. We are all leaders. There is not a party chain. There is not a party lash. Any man that does not love this country, any man that does not love liberty, any man that is not in favor of human progress, that is not in favor of giving to others all he claims for himself; we do not ask him to vote the Republican ticket. You can vote it if you please, and if there is any Democrat within hearing who expects to die before another election, we are willing that he should vote one Republican ticket, simply as a consolation upon his death-bed. What more? I am a Republican because that party believes in free labor. It believes that free labor will give us wealth. It believes in free thought, because it believes that free thought will give us truth. You do not know what a grand party you belong to. I never want any holier or grander title of nobility than that I belong to the Republican party, and have fought for the liberty of man. The Republican party, I say, believes in free labor. The Republican party also believes in slavery. What kind of slavery? In enslaving the forces of nature.
We believe that free labor, that free thought, have enslaved the forces of nature, and made them work for man. We make the old attraction of gravitation work for us; we make the lightning do our errands we make steam hammer and fashion what we need. The forces of nature are the slaves of the Republican party. They have no backs to be whipped, they have no hearts to be torn -- no hearts to be broken; they cannot be separated from their wives; they cannot be dragged from the bosoms husbands; they work night and day and never tire. You cannot whip them, you cannot starve them, and a Democrat even can be trusted with one of them. I tell you I am a Republican. I believe, as I told you, that free labor will give us these slaves. Free labor will produce all these things, and everything you have to-day has been produced by free labor, nothing by slave labor.
Slavery never invented but one machine, and that was a threshing machine in the shape of a whip. Free labor has invented all the machines. We want to come down to the philosophy of things. things. The problem of free labor, when a man works for the wife he loves, when he works for the little children he adores -- the problem is to do the most work in the shortest space of time. The problem of slavery is to do the least work in the longest space of time. That is the difference. Free labor, love, affection -- they have invented everything of use in this world. I am a Republican.
I tell you, my friends, this world is getting better every day, and the Democratic party is getting smaller every day. See the advancement we have made in a few years, see what we have done. We have covered this nation with wealth, with glory and with liberty. This is the first free Government in the world. The Republican party is the first party that was not founded on some compromise with the devil. It is the first party of pure, square, honest principle; the first one. And we have the first free country that ever existed.
And right here I want to thank every soldier that fought to make it free, every one living and dead. I thank you again in and again. You made the first free Government in the world, and we must not forget the dead heroes. If they were here they would vote the Republican ticket, every one of them. I tell you we must not forget them.
NOTE: (The following part of this speech was to become known as "A Vision of War" and became the most famous of all written Memorials to the Civil War.)
The past rises before me like a dream. Again we are in the great struggle for national life. We hear the sounds of preparation -- the music of boisterous drums -- the silver voices of heroic bugles. We see thousands of assemblages, and hear the appeals of orators. We see the pale cheek, of women and the flushed faces of men; and in those assemblages we see all the dead whose dust we have covered with flowers. We lose sight of them no more. We are with them when they enlist in the great army of freedom. We see them part with those they love. Some are walking for the last time in quiet, woody places, with the maidens they adore. We hear the whisperings and the sweet vows of eternal love as they lingeringly part forever. Others are bending over cradles, kissing babes that are asleep. Some are receiving the blessings of old men. Some are parting with mothers who hold them and press them to their hearts again and again, and say nothing. Kisses and tears, tears and kisses -- divine mingling of agony and love! And some are talking with wives, and endeavoring with brave words, spoken in the old tones, to drive from their hearts the awful fear. We see them part. We see the wife standing in the door with the babe in her arms -- standing in the sunlight sobbing. At the turn of the road a hand waves -- she answers by holding high in her loving arms the child. He is gone, and forever.
We see them all as they march proudly away under the flaunting flags, keeping time to the grand, wild music of war -- marching down the streets of the great cities -- through the towns and across the prairies -- down to the fields of glory, to do and to die for the eternal right.
We go with them, one and all. We are by their side on all the gory fields -- in all the hospitals of pain -- on all the weary marches. We stand guard with them in the wild storm and under the quiet stars. We are with them in ravines running with blood -- in the furrows of old fields. We are with them between contending hosts, unable to move, wild with thirst, the life ebbing slowly away among the withered leaves. We see them pierced by balls and torn with shells. in the trenches, by forts, and in the whirlwind of the where men become iron with nerves of steel.
We are with them in the prisons of hatred and famine; but human speech can never tell what they endured.
We are at home when the news comes that they are dead. We see the maiden in the shadow of her first sorrow. We see the silvered head of the old man bowed with the last grief.
The past rises before us, and we see four millions of human beings governed by the lash -- we see them bound hand and foot -- we hear the strokes of cruel whips -- we see the hounds tracking women through tangled swamps. We see babes sold from the breasts of mothers. Cruelty unspeakable! Out-rage infinite!
Four million bodies in chains -- four million souls in fetters. All the sacred relations of wife, mother, father and child trampled beneath the brutal feet of might. And all this was done under our own beautiful banner of the free.
The past rises before us. We hear the roar and shriek of the bursting shell. The broken fetters fall. These heroes died. We look. Instead of slaves we see men and women and children. The wand of progress touches the auction-block, the slave-pen, the whipping- post, an we see homes and firesides and schoolhouses and books, and where all was want and crime and cruelty and fear, we see the faces of the free.
These heroes are dead. They died for liberty -- they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Palace of Rest. Earth may run red with other wars -- they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead.
NOTE: (end of 'A Vision of War.')
Now, my friends, I have given you a few reasons why I am a Republican. I have given you a few reasons why I am not a Democrat. Let me say another thing. The Democratic party opposed every forward movement of the army of the Republic, every one. Do not be fooled. Imagine the meanest resolution that you can think of -- that is the resolution the Democratic party passed. Imagine the meanest thing you can think of -- that is what they did; and I want you to recollect that the Democratic party did these devilish things when the fate of this nation was trembling in the balance of war. I want you to recollect another thing; when they tell you about hard times, that the Democratic party made the hard times; that every dollar we owe to-day was made by the Southern and Northern Democracy.
When we commenced to put down the Rebellion we had to borrow money, and the Democratic party went into the markets of the world and impaired the credit of the United States. They slandered, they lied, they maligned the credit of the United States, and to such an extent did they do this, that at one time during the war paper was only worth about thirty-four cents on the dollar. Gold went up to $2.90. What did that mean? It meant that greenbacks were worth thirty-four cents on the dollar. What became of the other sixty-six cents? They were laid out of the greenback, they were slandered out of the greenback, they were maligned out of the greenback, they were calumniated out of the greenback, by the Democratic party of the North. Two-thirds of the debt, two-thirds of the burden now upon the shoulders of American industry, were placed there by the slanders of the Democratic party of the North, and the other third by the Democratic party of the South. And when you pay your taxes keep an account and charge two-thirds to the Northern Democracy and one-third to the Southern Democracy, and whenever you have to earn the money to pay the taxes, when you have to blister your hands to earn that money, pull off the blisters, and under each one, as the foundation, you will find a Democratic lie.
Recollect that the Democratic party did all the things of which I have told you, when the fate of our nation was submitted to the arbitrament of the sword. Recollect that the Democratic party did these things when your brothers, your fathers, and your chivalric sons were fighting, bleeding, suffering, and dying upon the battle-fields of the South; when shot and shell were crashing through their sacred flesh. Recollect that this Democratic party was false to the Union when your husbands, your fathers, and your brothers, and your chivalric sons were lying in the hospitals of pain, dreaming broken dreams of home, and seeing fever pictures of the ones they loved; recollect that the Democratic party was false to the nation when your husbands, your fathers, and your brothers were lying alone upon the field of battle at night the life-blood slowly oozing from the mangled and pallid lips of death; recollect that the Democratic party was false to your country when your husbands, your brothers, your fathers, your sons were lying in the prison pens of the South, with no covering but the clouds, with no bed but the frozen earth, with no food except such as worms had refused to eat, and with no friends except Insanity and Death. Recollect it, and spurn that party forever.
I have sometimes wished that there were words of pure hatred out of which I might construct sentences like snakes; out of which I might construct sentences that had fanged mouths, and that had forked tongues; out of which I might construct sentences that would writhe and hiss; and then I could give my opinion of the Northern allies of the Southern rebels during the great struggle for the preservation of the country.
There are three questions now submitted to the American people. The first is, Shall the people that served this country rule it? Shall the men who saved the old flag hold it? Shall the men who saved the ship of State sail it, or shall the rebels walk her quarter-deck, give the orders and sink it? That is the question. Shall a solid South, a united South, united by assassination and murder, a South solidified by the shot-gun; shall a united South, with the aid of a divided North, shall they control this great and splendid country? We are right back where we were in 1861. This is simply a prolongation of the war. This is the war of the idea, the other was the war of the musket. The other was the war of cannon, this is the war of thought; and we have beat them in this war of thought, recollect that. The question is, Shall the men who endeavored to destroy this country rule it? Shall the men that said, This is not a Nation, have charge of the Nation?
The next question is, Shall we pay our debts? We had to borrow some money to pay for shot and shell to shoot Democrats with. We found that we could get along with a few less Democrats, but not with any less country, and so we borrowed the money, and the question now is, will we pay it? And which party is the more apt to pay it, the Republican party that made the debt -- the party that swore it was constitutional, or the party that said it was unconstitutional?
Every time a Democrat sees a greenback, it says to him, "I vanquished you." Every time a Republican sees a greenback, it says, "You and I put down the Rebellion and saved the country."
Now, my friends, you have heard a great deal about finance. Nearly everybody that talks about it gets as dry -- as dry as if they had been in the final home of the Democratic party for forty years.
I now give you my ideas about finance. In the first place the Government does not support the people, the people support the Government.
The Government is a perpetual pauper. It passes round the hat, and solicits contributions; but then you must remember that the Government has a musket behind the hat. The Government produces nothing. It does not plow the land, it does not sow corn, it does not grow trees. The Government is a perpetual consumer. We support the Government. Now, the idea that the Government can make money for you and me to live on -- why, it is the same as though my hired man should issue certificates of my indebtedness to him for me to live on.
people tell me that the Government can impress its sovereignty on a piece of paper, and that is money. Well, if it is, what's the use of wasting it making one dollar bills? It takes no more ink and no paper -- why not make one thousand dollar bills? Why not make a hundred million dollar bills I be and all be billionaires?
If the Government can make money, what on earth does it collect taxes from you and me for? Why does it not make what money it wants, take the taxes out, and give the balance to us? Mr. Greenbacker, suppose the Government issued a billion dollars to-morrow, how would you get any of it? [A voice, "Steal it."] I was not speaking to the Democrats. You would not get any of it unless you had something to exchange for it. The Government would not go around and give you your average. You have to have some corn, or wheat, or pork to give for it.
How do you get your money? By work from Where from? You have to dig it out of the ground. That is where it comes from. Men have always had a kind of hope that something could be made out of nothing. The old alchemists sought, with dim eyes for something that could change the baser metals to gold. With tottering steps, they searched for the spring of Eternal Youth. Holding in trembling hands retort and crucible, they dreamed of the Elixir of Life. The baser metals are not gold. No human ear has ever heard the silver gurgle of the spring of Immortal Youth. The wrinkles upon the brow of Age are still waiting for the Elixir of Life. Inspired by the same idea, mechanics have endeavored, by curious combinations of levers and inclined planes, of wheels and cranks and shifting weights, to produce perpetual motion; but the wheels and levers wait for force. And, in the financial world, there are thousands now trying to find some way for promises to take the place of performance; for some way to make the word dollar as good as the dollar itself; for some way to make the promise to pay a dollar take the dollar's place. This financial alchemy, this pecuniary perpetual motion, this fountain of eternal wealth, are the same old failures with new names. Something cannot be made out of nothing. Nothing is a poor capital to carry on business with, and makes a very unsatisfactory balance at your bankers.
Let me tell you another thing. The Democrats seem to think that you can fail to keep a promise so long that it is as good as though you had kept it. They say you can stamp the sovereignty of the Government upon paper.
I saw not long ago a piece of gold bearing the stamp of the Roman Empire. That Empire is dust, and over it has been thrown the mantle of oblivion, but that piece of gold is as good as though Julius Caesar were still riding at the head of the Roman Legions.
Was it his sovereignty that made it valuable? Suppose he had put it upon a piece of paper -- it would have been of no more value than a Democratic promise
. Another thing, my friends: this debt will be paid; you need not worry about that. The Democrats ought to pay it. They lost the suit, and they ought to pay the costs. But we in our patriotism are willing to pay our share.
Every man that has a bond, every man that has a greenback dollar has a mortgage upon the best continent of land on earth. Every one has a mortgage on the honor of the Republican party, and it is on record. Every spear of grass; every beard head of golden wheat that grows upon this continent is a guarantee that the debt will be paid; every field of bannered corn in the great, glorious West is a guarantee that the debt will be paid; every particle of coal laid away by that old miser the sun, millions of years ago, is a guarantee that every dollar will be paid; all the iron ore, all the gold and silver under the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, waiting for the miners pick to give back the flash of the sun, every ounce is a guarantee that this debt will be paid; and all the cattle on the prairies, pastures and plains which adorn our broad land are guarantees that this debt will be paid; every pine standing in the somber forests of the North, waiting for the woodman's axe, is a guarantee that this debt will be paid; every locomotive with its muscles of iron and breath flame, and all the boys and girls bending over their books at school, every dimpled babe in the cradle, every honest man, every noble woman, and every man that votes the Republican ticket is a guarantee that the debt will be paid -- these, all these, each and all are guarantees that every promise of the United States will be sacredly fulfilled.
What is the next question? The next question is, will we protect the Union men in the South? I tell you the white Union men have suffered enough. It is a crime in the Southern States to be a Republican. It is a crime in every Southern State to love this country, to believe in the sacred rights of men.
The colored people have suffered enough. For than two hundred years they have suffered the fabled torments of the damned; for more than two hundred years they worked and toiled without reward, bending, in the burning sun, their bleeding backs; for more than two hundred years, babes were torn from the breasts of mothers, wives from husbands, and every human tie broken by the cruel hand of greed; for more than two hundred years pursued by hounds, beaten with clubs, burned with fire, bound with chains; two hundred years of toil, of agony, of tears; two hundred years of hope deferred; two hundred years of gloom and shadow and darkness and blackness; two hundred years of supplication, of entreaty; two hundred years of infinite outrage, without a moment of revenge.
The colored people have suffered enough. They were and are our friends. They are the friends of this country, and, cost what it may, they must be protected.
There was not during the whole Rebellion a single negro that was not our friend. We are willing to be reconciled to our Southern brethren when they will treat our friends as men. When they will be just to the friends of this country; when they are in favor of allowing every American citizen to have his rights -- then we are their friends. We are willing to trust them with the Nation when they are the friends of the Nation. We are willing to trust them with liberty when they believe in liberty. We are willing to trust them with the black man when they cease riding in the darkness of night (those masked wretches,) to the hut of the freedman, and notwithstanding the prayers and supplications of his family, shoot him down; when they cease to consider the massacre of Hamburg as a Democratic triumph, then, I say, we will be their friends, and not before.
Now, my friends, thousands of the Southern people and thousands of the Northern Democrats are afraid that the negroes are going to pass them in the race of life. And, Mr. Democrat, he will do it unless you attend to your business. The simple fact that you are white cannot save you always. You have to be industrious, honest, to cultivate a sense of justice. If you do not the colored race will pass you, as sure as you live. I am for giving every man a chance. Anybody that can pass me is welcome.
I believe, my friends, that the intellectual domain of the future, as the land used to be in the State of Illinois, is open to preemption. The fellow that gets a fact first, that is his; that gets an idea first, that is his. Every round in the ladder of fame, from the one that touches the ground to the last one that leans against the shining summit of human ambition, belongs to the foot that gets upon it first.
Mr. Democrat, (I point down because they are nearly all on the first round of the ladder) if you can not climb, stand to one side and let the deserving negro pass.
I must tell you one thing. I have told it so much, and you have all heard it fifty times, but I am going to tell it again because I like it. Suppose there was a great horse race here to-day, free to every horse in the world, and to all the mules, and all the scrubs, and all the donkeys.
At the tap of the drum they come to the line and the judges say "it is a go." Let me ask you, what does the blooded horse, rushing ahead, with nostrils distended, drinking in the breath of his won swiftness, with his mane flying like a banner of victory, with his veins standing out all over him, as if a network of life bad been cast upon him -- with his thin neck, his high withers, his tremulous flanks -- what does he care how many mules and donkeys run on that track? But the Democratic scrub with his chuckle-head and lop-ears, with his tail full of cockle-burrs, jumping high and short, and digging in the ground when he feels the breath of the coming mule on his cockle-burr tail, he is the chap that jumps the track and says, "I am down on mule equality."
I stood, a little while ago, in the city of Paris, where stood the Bastille, where now stands the Column of July, surmounted by a figure of liberty. In its right hand is a broken chain, in its left hand a banner; upon its glorious forehead the glittering and shining star of progress -- and as I looked upon it I said Such is the Republican party of my country." The other day going along the road I came to a place where the road had been changed, but the guide-board did not know it. It had stood there for twenty years pointing deliberately and solemnly in the direction of a desolate field; nobody ever went that way, but the guide-board thought the next man would. Thousands passed, but nobody heeded the hand on the guide-post, and through sunshine and storm it pointed diligently into the old field and swore to it the road went that way; and I said to myself: Such is the Democratic party of the United States."
The other day I came to a river where there had been a mill; a part of it was there still. An old sign said: "Cash for wheat." The old waterwheel was broken; it had been warped by the sun, cracked and split by many winds and storms. There had not been a grain of wheat ground there for twenty years.
The door was gone, nobody had built a new dam, the mill was not worth a dam; and I said to myself: "Such, is the Democratic party."
I saw a little while ago a place on the road where there had once been an hotel. But the hotel, and barn had burned down and there was nothing standing but two desolate chimneys, up the flues of which the fires of hospitality had not roared for thirty years. The fence was gone, and the post-holes even were obliterated, but in the road there was an old sign upon which were these words: "Entertainment for man and beast." The old sign swung and creeked in the winter wind, the snow fell upon it, the sleet clung to it, and in the summer the birds sang and twittered and made love upon it. Nobody ever stopped there, but the sign swore to it, the sign certified to it! "Entertainment for man and beast," and I said to myself: "Such is the Democratic party of the United States," and I further said, "one chimney ought to be called Tilden and the other Hendricks."
Now, my friends, I want you to vote the Republican ticket. I want you to swear you will not vote for a man who opposed putting down the Rebellion. I want you to swear that you will not vote for a man opposed to the Proclamation of Emancipation. I want you to swear that you will not vote for a man opposed to the utter abolition of slavery.
I want you to swear that you will not vote for a man who called the soldiers in the field, Lincoln hirelings. I want you to swear that you will not vote for a man who denounced Lincoln as a tyrant. I want you to swear that you will not vote for any enemy of human progress. Go and talk to every Democrat that you can see; get him by the coat collar, talk to him, and hold him like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, with your glittering eye; hold him, tell him all the mean things his party ever did; tell him kindly; tell him in a Christian spirit, as I do, but tell him. Recollect, there never was a more important election than the one you are going to hold in Indiana. I tell you we must stand by the country. It is a glorious country. It permits you and me to be free. It is the only country in the world where labor is respected. Let us support it. It is the only country in the world where the useful man is the only aristocrat. The man that works for a dollar a day, goes home at night to his little ones, takes his little boy on his knee, and he thinks that boy can achieve anything that the sons of the wealthy man can achieve. The free schools are open to him; he may be the richest, the greatest, and the grandest, and that thought sweetens every drop of sweat that rolls down the honest face of toil. Vote to save that country.
My friends, this country is getting better every day. Samuel J. Tilden says we are a nation of thieves and rascals. If that is so he ought to be the President. But I denounce him as a calumniator of my country; a malinger of this nation. It is not so. This country is covered with asylums for the aged, the helpless, the insane, the orphans and wounded soldiers. Thieves and rascals do not build such things. In the cities of the Atlantic coast this summer, they built floating hospitals, great ships, and took the little children from the sub-cellars and narrow, dirty streets of New York City, where the Democratic party is the strongest -- took these poor waifs and put them in these great hospitals out at sea, and let the breezes of ocean kiss the roses of health back to their pallid cheeks. Rascals and thieves do not so. When Chicago burn railroads were blocked with the charity of the American people. Thieves and rascals do not so.
I am a Republican. The world is getting better. Husbands are treating their wives better than they used to; wives are treating their husbands better. Children are better treated than they used to be; the old whips and clubs are out of the schools, and they are governing children by love and by sense. The world is getting better; it is getting better in Maine, in Vermont. It is getting better in every State of the North, and I tell you we are going to elect Hayes and Wheeler and the world will then be better still. I have a dream that this world is growing better and better every day and every year; that there is more charity, more justice, more love every day. I have a dream that prisons will not always curse the land; that the shadow of the gallows will not always fall upon the earth; that the withered hand of want will not always be stretched out for charity; that finally wisdom will sit in the legislatures, justice in the courts, charity will occupy all the pulpits, and that finally the world will be governed by justice and charity, and by the splendid light of liberty. That is my dream, and if it does not come true, it shall not be my fault. I am going to do my level best to give others the same chance I ask for myself. Free thought will give us truth; Free labor will give us wealth.

Actually, Robert Ingersoll was a pretty cool guy. He was one of the best orators of the 19th century, and was known as the "Great Agnostic." He was a humanist, a secularist, a friend of Walt Whitman. In all actuality, he'd probably be a Democrat today. Or more likely in the Green Party!

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005)

How do you describe a Sarah Vowell book? This is my second one I've read by her - the first being Unfamiliar Fishes about Hawaii - and both of them are written in exactly the same style. Vowell takes facts - in this case about the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley - and spins them with her own opinions and segues into her own life and experiences. In reading some Goodreads reviews of the book, someone wrote that it's Vowell's voice that really makes her book (s) and I tend to agree. Not her actual voice - although that's amusing and interesting enough to be used in animation - but her writer's voice. What kind of "voice" does Sarah Vowell write with? Sometimes tongue in cheek, sometimes snarky, sometimes bitterly humorous (particularly when talking about the then administration of George W. Bush); sometimes she has an almost childlike sense of awe about a particularly subject or happening, almost as if whatever she's writing about is glowing in a multitude of rainbow colors - but in a totally likable way. Her voice is the line drawn between Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley - a crooked line that segues here there and everywhere but a line nonetheless.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1922)

I'm nearly finished with The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and while it's still not my favorite of the books (at least I think that now), it does have at least one beautifully memorable and quotable passage about the sea, and some interesting analogies about colonialism.

First the passage. Tommy Stubbins, Doctor Dolittle's nine (!) year old assistant, is describing the beautiful, terrible power of the sea:
Indeed the whole sky was now beginning to take on a very threatening look. The black line to the eastward grew blacker as it came nearer and nearer. A low, rumbly, whispering noise went moaning over the sea. The water which had been so blue and smiling turned to a ruffled ugly gray. And across the darkening sky, shreds of cloud swept like tattered witches flying from the storm.

I must confess I was frightened. You see I had only so far seen the sea in friendly moods: sometimes quiet and lazy; sometimes laughing, venturesome and reckless; sometimes brooding and poetic, when moonbeams turned her ripples into silver threads and dreaming snowy night-clouds piled up fairy-castles in the sky. But as yet I had not known, or even guessed at, the terrible strength of the Sea's wild anger.

Now on to colonialism. The whole war between the Indian tribes and the Peace of the Parrots got me to thinking, particularly about the Terrible Three: Doctor Dolittle (the white Englishman, European, armed with Western knowledge and technology), Long Arrow (the South American Indian, armed with traditional know-how and an understanding of the native mind) and Bumpo (the African prince, strong and brave, although not so developed as the other two, but trying via and Oxford, western education). They represent the Popsipetel tribe - weak, without knowledge or technology (they don't even have fire), easily tricked by the "smarter" Westerner and his allies (albeit tricked for the good). Invaded by the Bag-jagderags - whose sole purpose in invading is to steal the corn of the Popsipetel, because the Bag-jagderags are too lazy to grow their own. This certainly smells like a parable for children about the evils of colonialism. I wrote earlier after reading the first Dolittle book that the war between the Doctor and the African king were anti-colonial as well; Voyages seems to make that indictment, although in a much more subtle (and fun) manner. Here we have the powers of the third world, represented first (of course) by the great white doctor, coming together to stop a great power from invading for the purpose of exploiting the smaller, weaker people for material gain. This doesn't seem to include a specific anti-war sentiment - that certainly seems to come later in Lofting's works; the doctor is a peaceful man but willing to fight tooth and nail to protect the weaker Popsipetel from their aggressive neighbors. The fact that the two peoples make Dolittle their king has that Babar-esque feel; but kings have been elected before for equally odd reasons, and it certainly makes for a fun ending to the story.

After teaching the natives of Spider Monkey Island all about Western culture and technology - metal making, medicine, art and literature - the Doctor doesn't think he can leave:


"Now Doctor," said she in a soft persuasive voice as though she were talking to a wayward child, "you know this king business is not your real work in life. These natives will be able to get along without you--not so well as they do with you of course-- but they'll manage--the same as they did before you came. Nobody can say you haven't done your duty by them. It was their fault: they made you king. Why not accept the snail's offer; and just drop everything now, and go? The work you'll do, the information you'll carry home, will be of far more value than what you're doing here."

"Good friend," said the Doctor turning to her sadly, "I cannot. They would go back to their old unsanitary ways: bad water, uncooked fish, no drainage, enteric fever and the rest. . . . No. I must think of their health, their welfare. I began life as a people's doctor: I seem to have come back to it in the end. I cannot desert them. Later perhaps something will turn up. But I cannot leave them now."

"That's where you're wrong, Doctor," said she. "Now is when you should go. Nothing will 'turn up.' The longer you stay, the harder it will be to leave."

Again, that anti-colonial sentiment. It's okay to teach the third world about medicine and art and how to mine and make things - but it's not alright to stay.


******
As I read the second Dolittle book, I was also struck - and who couldn't be - by how Lofting was ahead of the curve on thoughts about animals. The tidbit about the Doctor discovering the North Pole before anyone else:

I promised to keep it a secret. And you must promise me never to tell any one. Yes, I discovered the North Pole in April, 1809. But shortly after I got there the polar bears came to me in a body and told me there was a great deal of coal there, buried beneath the snow. They knew, they said, that human beings would do anything, and go anywhere, to get coal. So would I please keep it a secret. Because once people began coming up there to start coal-mines, their beautiful white country would be spoiled—and there was nowhere else in the world cold enough for polar bears to be comfortable. So of course I had to promise them I would.

Hasn't drilling in the Alaskan wilderness been a perennial presidential debate for the last two elections? Lofting was writing this 90 years ago; I wonder if anyone else was saying this in 1922?

This very modern environmentalism appears again and again. The idea that lions and tigers should not be kept in zoos. The idea that zoos are to make animals comfortable and mimic their habitats. Later, in Doctor Dolittle's Circus, the Doctor takes it a step further and frees a sea lion -- I think the 21st century Doctor Dolittle would definitely be an environmental terrorist trying to free Willy at Seaworld.

I was also thinking about my reaction to this particular book, wondering why it was an award winner, thinking it was quite as interesting as some of the other books. I also kept thinking to myself - the cynical grown up - things like "Indians would have fire" and "There aren't really any black parrots, that's just made up" poking holes right and left (there is another part of mind saying "Shut up; it's a fantasy book, and while the rules of this world aren't absolutely perfect, they aren't that bad either).

But then a spark in my mind: I'm a nine year old boy in 1922. Maybe I have a radio, but maybe not. I'm on a farm in Kansas or Nebraska. My family has an automobile of some sort, but aside from school we really don't go into town very often. I probably don't even have electricity. My parents have 8th grade educations, or maybe they are immigrants (most likely second generation Americans). I go to school for part of the year in town, and some midwestern school marm in the big new brick school shows me this new book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle - and my mind is opened to far away places. Indians and floating islands and shipwrecks. Tribal warfare. Whales and dolphins. A man who can talk to animals. And a nine year old boy, just like me, who gets to go on this adventure. Between milking the cows and weeding the vegetable garden and feeding the chickens and all that other back breaking farm work, I get to escape for a while.

Even a 9 year old boy in a small town in Kansas in 1979 wanted to escape for a while into that world. I hope nine year old boys still do.



Friday, August 12, 2011

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1922)

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle won the Newbery Award in 1923. But I have to say, my memory of it was that it was one of my least favorite of all the Doctor Dolittle books. And I think that's probably still true. Although by this second book the Doctor has developed into "himself," I still think it's not a very interesting story (at least not yet). I miss Gub-Gub, Too-Too, Dab-Dad, the white mouse, etc. who don't really play any sort of role in the book -- only Dab-Dab is mentioned by name.

I wonder what it was about the book that helped it win the Newbery that year? Interestingly, that was only the second year of the Newbery Awards, so perhaps they were still getting their footing. There aren't any recorded honor books to compare it to that year either.... TIME PASSING... GOOGLING IN A FRUSTRATED MANNER... BROW FURROWED...

It's difficult to find a list of books for children published in 1922. (the Caldecott Awards were started in 1938!)... Maybe children just read and re-read the same books over and over again... Doctor Dolittle, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Andrew Lang...

These were in the Most Popular Books Published in 1922 at Goodreads:

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Blacky the Crow by Thornton Burgess
Whitefoot the Woodmouse by Thornton Burgess
The Bobbsey Twins and the County Fair Mystery by Laura Lee Hope
Some other series crap I'd never even heard of.

NOTHING ELSE! No wonder The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle won the Newbery Medal and there weren't any honors - except for some series (and those early old lady librarians hated series, although HOW Doctor Dolittle isn't a series is beyond me) - there wasn't anything else published except for The Velveteen Rabbit. Both Voyages and Rabbit are still in print, which to my mind makes them beloved classics. I'm not sure one is any better than the other; perhaps Velveteen wasn't even offered up.

The plot thickens! The early Newbery Awards were a popularity contest - popular vote among librarians! Still, not a lot to choose from that year though.






Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams (2009)

Liz Williams keeps on amazing me. Each time I pick up one of her books, I read about three chapters and I think "Ho hum, do I really want to finish this?" But that nagging little voice reminds me, oh so rightfully "Keep on going, it's always worth it..." And boy, it sure always is worth it. It's like a long, slow drum roll that starts out softly but just keeps getting louder and louder and until BOOM and then it fades delightfully away.

Everything in the world of Detective Inspector Chen is dark, an oily sheen on a dirty harbor reflecting red neon lights and the full moon. The world Williams has created is both old and modern, where ancient stories and folktales run smack into raw, new stories. It's always night in Singapore Three, and my recent experience at a LA Noir panel discussion (and a new awareness of noir in general) made me wonder if the Detective Inspector Chen novels were indeed some sort of fantasy noir. So I looked up some characteristics of noir to check.

There is definitely a new sub genre called "fantasy noir" out there - I just checked - described as "magical cities in decay." That's a good label for Singapore Three. That good old school marm Miz Wikipedia provides some additional information to compare, from the article on film noir. "Convoluted storylines." Liz Williams plots are pretty fragmented and tend to snake around one another until you come to the end. "Crime, usually murder, is an element in all noirs" usually based on greed or jealousy. Since these are nominally books about a detective inspector, that seems to be an obvious that some sort of crime is going to take center stage - although, interestingly, geopolitical circumstances often play a role as well (or in this case, politics involving any number of Hells and Heavens), making some of the books a cross between fantasy noir and a fantasy political thriller. "Flawed heroes... morally questionable" A demon from hell seems ultimately flawed and certainly morally questionable (he just cheated on his fiance with an erotic deva, and I don' t think he has any intention of telling her). Chen, on the other hand, considers himself flawed - or at least his former patroness Kwan Yin seems to think so -- but I'm not always so sure (I've got a huge crush on Chen; so far he can do no wrong in my eyes, although Zhu Irzh is far more sexy, at least for a giant insect). "Urban setting." Already covered that. "The city as a labyrinth or maze." Singapore Three goes on and on, twists and turns both physically and plot wise. "Essentially pessimistic;" perhaps this where the noir ends and the fantasy begins, because the books might be dark, but they have pretty upbeat endings. "Trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed." This definitely describes everyone who Detective Inspector Chen meets, from his demonic partner to his wife (even her badger), and certainly the characters they interact with in each book. "A world that is inherently corrupt." Singapore Three seems to be filled with corruption. Hell, of course, is corruption in itself. But even Heaven is corrupt! "Film noir is often said to be defined by moral ambiguity, yet the Production Code obliged almost all classic noirs to see that steadfast virtue was ultimately rewarded and vice, in the absence of shame and redemption, severely punished (however dramatically incredible the final rendering of mandatory justice might be)." Let's see -- the Empress of Heaven was confined to eternal solitary confinement for plotting against her son and trying to have him killed. That seems pretty severe. But the assassin her/himself (s/he is both sexes) is saved at the end (I won't give away that plot point, just in case someone is reading this). Morally and sexually ambiguous.

I think I'd call this fantasy noir. Or some sort of noir. If the characteristics were the ingredients of a recipe, then Liz Williams has prepared several incredibly fun to read noir cakes.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1922)

Tommy Stubbins comes to the doctor's home for the second time, the next morning after they had met. After a short conversation with Polynesia the parrot, he goes inside. "When I opened the door, I could smell bacon frying, so I made my way to the kitchen. There I discovered a large kettle boiling away over the fire and some bacon and eggs in a dish upon the hearth."

Egad? Has the doctor slaughtered Gub-gub the pig? Shouldn't Doctor Dolittle be a vegetarian? For some reason, this never bothered me as a kid. In fact, all of those hearty English meals were kind of comforting.

Blog Archive

Followers