Review: The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Published by Penguin Books, 1984; 360+ pages

I read this book back in October, for the R.I.P. III Challenge and the Ghostly Challenge, so you can see I’m very late in getting a review up. For some reason, my reviewing activity has dwindled to a standstill lately – there are at least four books I read this past summer that I have yet to blog about. Not that the world is out there waiting on the edge of its seat or anything. But if I don’t put something on paper soon (well, virtual paper anyway), I’ll forget all about what I’ve read! So I should get a move on, right?

Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent, England in 1862 and died in 1936. An antiquarian and medievalist, James was an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, and went on to become a don and finally a provost at that same college. His many scholarly writings were well-known and respected in his day, but today he’s best remembered for his ghost stories. His first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, appeared in 1904; and several others followed until the first all-inclusive edition was issued in 1931.

James said he wrote the stories intending to “put the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ ” And in that, I believe he was successful. These are all classic ghost tales – formulaic, to be sure (the settings and characters and basic plots can seem a bit repetitive when you read them all together like this), but still disturbing enough to make you squirm a bit in your comfy chair.

James also claimed not to have any use for “amiable” spirits. His ghosts are malevolent and vindictive and frightening. They are frequently amorphous, monstrous creations – seemingly conjured from ashes or leaves or dust, with few human characteristics about them. They have more in common with Lovecraft’s “nameless horrors” than they do with the ethereal or attractive spirits in some folk tales or modern gothic romances.

This Penguin edition combines all four volumes of M.R. James’s ghost stories. Of all the thirty-one stories, I knew I had read at least one before I started this book – “Casting the Runes.” It was one of the stories included in a book called The Haunted Looking-Glass, a collection of spooky stories chosen and illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Gorey’s book was one of my childhood favorites, and “Casting the Runes” was one of the scariest stories in it – so naturally I loved it. After I got started on this volume, I realized I’d read several more of the stories over the years. In fact, some of my favorite ghost tales are included here – I’d just forgotten they were written by M.R. James. And I was pleased to find that even after all these years “Casting the Runes” remains deliciously creepy, and was once again one of the stories I enjoyed most. It contains a passage that, once read, haunted the bedtimes of my youth for many months afterward:

. . . the electric light was off. The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.

Just a minute – let me turn on a few more lights.

Other favorites from the collection:

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” – A tourist in an English cathedral town buys a manuscript put together centuries ago by one Canon Albéric de Mauléon, who apparently cut up volumes from the cathedral’s library to fashion his book. The buyer soon discovers that the long-dead Canon Albéric may still be trying to keep an eye on the manuscript he created, and on its new owner.

“The Mezzotint” – Has a similar storyline to “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” and actually refers to that tale. In this one, a museum curator acquires a rather nondescript picture of a manor house, which soon proves itself to have some very unique features. Well, as they say, every picture tells a story – and the story this picture tells is a very disturbing one indeed.

“The Haunted Doll’s House” – I guess this would naturally appeal to me, since I’m a doll collector. But I don’t have any doll houses; and after reading this story, I’m really kind of glad of that. In it, a collector of antiques buys an elaborate doll’s house that comes complete with furnishings and miniature occupants. And a rather ghastly tale of its own to tell.

“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” – An academic enjoying a vacation at the seaside finds an ancient bronze whistle, and makes the mistake of blowing into it to hear the sound it makes. (He must not read many ghost stories!) Soon he’s being followed by mysterious shapes and plagued by unpredictable breezes. This story has one of my favorite lines from all the ghost stories I’ve read (you should know that our protagonist is staying alone in a double-bedded room):

. . . the reader will hardly, perhaps, imagine how dreadful it was to him to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed.

Makes me shiver as I type.

I’ve already mentioned the Edward Gorey collection that introduced me to M.R. James. James’s work really cries out to be illustrated, and Edward Gorey was indeed the perfect choice for the job. This Penguin edition is good in that it contains all the stories; but it could definitely use some pictures. There’s a British edition of M.R James’s work, edited by Michael Cox and illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott, that I’d love to have (insert hint to hubby here). Maybe it’s just a hankering to recapture childhood pleasures, but I really think spooky stories go better with spooky pictures, don’t you?

Review: Summer Reading

Written by Hilma Wolitzer
Published by Ballantine Books, 2007; 251 pages

I was a little suspicious of Hilma Wolitzer’s novel Summer Reading when I first read the plot summary. A book about a group of women getting together to read books, and how that activity affected their lives outside the group, sounded an awful lot like The Jane Austen Book Club. And while I enjoyed that earlier work, I wasn’t eager to read a carbon copy. So when I put Wolitzer’s book on my reading list for this past summer, I had some misgivings. After all, a book called Summer Reading just couldn’t really turn out to be a great summer read, could it?

Well, as it happens, it most certainly could! And I needn’t have worried about it being a carbon copy. It definitely is not that. Wolitzer’s novel is original and very readable, with well-developed characters, a lot of humor, and a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Basically, it’s the story of three very different women – how they interact, and how reading (or not reading, at times) affects their lives. Lissy Snyder, the wealthy “trophy wife” of a Wall Street type, is the originator of a reading group (called the Page Turners) that meets twice a month at her summer place in the Hamptons. Michelle Cutty, Lissy’s hired help, is younger than Lissy and a permanent resident of the beach community – as opposed to the “summer people” who invade the place during the tourist season. And Angela Graves, a retired English professor who lives in a tiny book-filled cottage by the sea, has been engaged by Lissy to lead the discussion at the group’s meetings.

Angela guides the Page Turners through five books in the course of the novel: Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, Villette, by Charlotte Brontë, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. And these works, each in its own way an exploration of male-female relationships, cause each woman to reexamine how her own past actions and decisions have shaped her life.

All of the characters were intriguing – even the minor ones like Michelle’s mother Jo Ann and April, the first wife of Michelle’s boyfriend Hank. But I think my favorite was Angela. I’m always looking for books with interesting older women in leading roles – they’re not easy to find. I liked her because she was a book lover, and something of a loner. And the back story of her affair with a married colleague – an interlude from many years ago that has shaped the whole of her life since then – was touching and sad and also a little exasperating. She just seemed very human.

The only quibble I have with the book (and it’s really a minor one) is the slightly surprising ending to Lissy’s story. It involves a coincidence of fairly epic proportions (well, epic to Lissy, anyway), and isn’t quite as believable as the rest of the book. But it does provide a very satisfying, if not terribly realistic wrap-up to an otherwise entirely appealing read.

Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Written by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
A Dell Yearling Book, Published 1973

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs, is the first book in his Lewis Barnavelt series of gothic horror novels for young readers.

Orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, ten-year-old Lewis comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1948. Lewis is lonely, frightened, nervous about meeting his unknown relative, and worried about what his future holds:

It seemed to Lewis that all he could think of these days were questions: Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me? [p. 4]

This could be the beginning of any number of orphaned-children novels. But Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan turns out to be a wizard – the scandalous black sheep of the family. And the story soon takes a unique and uncanny turn: Together with neighbor Florence Zimmermann (who just happens to be a witch), Lewis and his uncle must locate a magic clock hidden somewhere in Jonathan’s spooky mansion, before it destroys the world.

The clock was the handiwork of Isaac Izard, an evil warlock who was the original owner of Uncle Jonathan’s house. Izard practiced black magic and lived a hermetic existence there in the mansion along with his wife Selenna until her mysterious death. Isaac himself died shortly after that, one night during a wild thunderstorm. And though no one understands why he did it, Izard devised a clock that would bring about the end of the world and hid it somewhere in the walls of the house. Now every night Lewis and his uncle search for the clock while they hear it ticking off the minutes leading up to doomsday.

Bellairs’ story is decidedly creepy, but also whimsical and endearing. Uncle Jonathan’s house has some very surprising characteristics – such as stained glass windows with pictures that change without notice. And a secret passageway that leads to Mrs. Zimmermann’s house next door. And Jonathan and Florence are constantly engaged in good-natured bickering, and delight in addressing each other with pet names like “Hag Face,” “Frizzy Wig,” and “Weird Beard.”

Lewis is portrayed as a very real boy, with a real child’s insecurities and fears, forced to deal with very exotic and peculiar and even perilous situations. His desperate struggle to maintain an unlikely friendship with a popular boy in his class at school serves as the main mechanism for some of the most dangerous action in the book. And although he’s certainly instrumental in the effort to destroy the forces of evil, he’s not portrayed as a superhero. In the end, he’s content to sit around a bonfire with his uncle and Mrs. Zimmermann, drinking cocoa and eating chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the bonfire eventually turns into a jack-o-lantern, with a scowling orange face – but then, Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, after all.

This was my introduction to John Bellairs and Lewis Barnavelt, and I’d definitely like to read more titles in the series. I loved the eccentric characters and bizarre storyline. And Edward Gorey’s illustrations were a special treat, and a perfect match for Bellairs’ mix of ordinary everyday action with a supernatural element. It all combines to make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a delightful experience for readers of all ages.

Review: Mr. White’s Confession

Written by Robert Clark
Published by Picador, 1998, 341 pages

That is the sad thing about memory, I suppose. It goes without saying that search as we will, we cannot know the future; but it seems we cannot even know the past, however much we search it; and so we are always longing for it and seeing it beyond our reach, anticipating what is past as though it were to come. In that way, having a memory is terribly sad, like visiting a graveyard, where even at the loveliest of times one must finally confess that underneath the verdure there are only the dead and gone, that which is lost to us, the things we once loved, that we still love. . . . I suppose that is all memory really is, for the most part: the hunger for what we have loved. [p. 301]

Robert Clark’s Mr. White’s Confession is an atmospheric, genre-bending murder mystery, set in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1939. Someone is killing dime-a-dance girls in the city, and Police Lieutenant Wesley Horner is assigned to the case. His investigation soon leads him to a chief suspect – one Herbert White, a local eccentric with memory problems and a taste for “glamour” photography. White was a frequent customer at the dance hall where the two murdered women worked, and had taken their photographs just before they turned up dead. And when the police question him, his answers are unconventional and unsatisfying. Is it possible he’s using his claims of faulty memory to mask his guilt?

The book shifts back and forth between Horner’s investigation of the case and White’s diaries from the period. Herbert keeps detailed diaries and scrapbooks to help him remember things. Because of an injury at birth, he has a very quirky memory – he can recall his childhood and events from long ago, and things that happened within the last day or two, but has trouble with the time between – his “middle-distance” memories. And by the time Horner settles on him as the likely killer, we’ve already gotten to know and care about White through those diaries and scrapbooks – a circumstance which really adds to the suspense and tension of the story. But then there’s always the nagging question: Can we rely on him as a narrator?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters – even the minor characters – are all interesting and believable. No one is perfect – even Lieutenant Horner is troubled and flawed. As a mystery novel, it’s probably only half successful, but that’s really not its point. Much more important is its exploration of themes of guilt and innocence, truth and fiction, past and present, love, faith, and memory. Especially memory. As Herbert White writes in his diary:

. . . it seems to me that perhaps at bottom all our knowing, all our seeing, is limited to what we have remembered: What is to come is, after all, beyond our ken; and what is happening at this moment, precisely now, we apprehend only after the moment is past, after it has become a memory. So memory is more than a souvenir of what was and is no more: It is in this sense everything we know and everything we have. [pp. 333-334]

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, although it originally came out in 1998. Before I read it, I wasn’t familiar with Robert Clark’s works. But now I’m a fan. And I’m eager to read his earlier work, In the Deep Midwinter – if only for that wonderful title.

Review: Superfudge

Written by Judy Blume
Published by Dell Yearling, 1994 and later
Originally published 1980

This review refers to the 1994 edition of the book.
Young Readers Challenge

Is Judy Blume still popular? I know she was wildly successful back in the 1970s and ‘80s. But do kids still read her books? She was one of those annoyingly over-achieving children’s book writers who seemed to turn out nothing but best-sellers. And then she started writing books for adults and did OK there, too. See what I mean about annoying?

Since I was already in college when she published her first children’s books and I don’t have kids of my own, I never had occasion to read any of her books until the Young Readers Challenge came along and made me start looking at all the kids’ lit I’ve missed in the last century decade or so.

There’s really no reason why I should have read this particular book. But I’ve been making a conscious effort this year, to read more children’s and young adult books that have boys as the central characters. In the past, I’ve mostly read “girly” books. So when I found this in one of the boxes of kids’ books I’ve got stored away, I thought I’d give it a look.

Get to the point, already!

Superfudge is a sequel to Blume’s earlier book about the Hatcher family, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (which I haven’t read). This second installment is set a couple of years after that first book, and is narrated by Peter Hatcher, older brother of the unfortunately named Farley Drexel Hatcher (hence the nickname “Fudge”) who is four years old when the book begins. Peter is beginning sixth grade, and trying to live as normal a life as it’s possible to live, with a brother like Fudge.

Fudge is the baby of the family, and gets away with murder (almost literally – in the first book he apparently swallowed Peter’s pet turtle alive!). He is wild and uncontrollable, and naturally the apple of his parent’s eyes. No wonder then that Peter is upset when he learns that a new baby sister is on the way (eventually called “Tootsie”) – he’s positive the new sibling will turn out to be just another version of Fudge!

In this story, the family moves to Princeton, New Jersey for a year so that Mrs. Hatcher can go back to school (and have a new baby, too? talk about Supermom!) and Mr. Hatcher can spend some time writing a book. Peter isn’t happy about the move at first, but once he gets there and starts to make new friends, he begins to enjoy the place. The baby comes. Peter has his first mild crush on a girl. The boys have some funny adventures, and Fudge acquires a talking myna bird whose favorite phrase turns out to be “Bonjour, stupid!” It would be a cute story if it weren’t for the constantly infuriating presence of the abominable Fudge.

A couple of things struck me as I was reading this book, and doing a bit of research on it. One thing I found a little surprising is the fact that Blume “outs” Santa in the book. At one point, Peter talks about the fact that he never believed in Santa Claus because he’d seen his parents putting presents under the tree when he was three years old. And he doesn’t agree with his parents’ plan to let Fudge go on believing a little longer, since Fudge “thinks you can get whatever you want by just asking.” I suppose since the book is aimed at the just-pre-middle school crowd, this isn’t a big deal. But if a parent were reading it to a younger child, this might be a nasty shock.

I was also amused to learn that in later editions of the book, some things have been altered to bring the story a little more “up to date.” Christmas “want” lists are changed to reflect the times – records and record players replaced with CDs, etc. And the boys’ favorite TV shows are replaced with 21st Century shows. I suppose that makes sense from a marketing point of view, although I always hate it when history is tampered with that way, even in children’s books. It means missing a great opportunity for kids to learn a little something about the times their parents and grandparents lived through.

In the end, I guess this is just one of those books you’ve gotta be a kid to appreciate. Fudge did not charm me. I did not think he was super. At one point, big brother Peter says to him, “You are the biggest pain ever invented.” Yeah, I’d agree with that.

Review: So Long at the Fair

Written by Christina Schwarz
Published by Doubleday, 2008, 244 pages
This review refers to an Advanced Reader’s Edition of the book

The main narrative of Christina Schwarz’s novel So Long at the Fair takes place in the course of one summer day, and is basically the story of a marriage going through a rocky patch. Jon and Ginny are a childless couple, in their thirties, not really unhappily matched, but no longer head-over-heels about each other. Enter Freddi, Jon’s business associate – unattached and attractive – and things start to unravel for Jon.

It’s not a bad story, if a bit trite. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, although none of them are completely admirable or sympathetic. But Schwarz’s examination of adultery, love and betrayal is realistic and doesn’t pull punches. If she had limited the book to that story, I’d have given her full marks. But instead, she’s chosen to add on a couple of other stories which really just end up littering the landscape – a maddeningly shadowy and prolonged tale set in 1963, centering around Jon’s and Ginny’s parents’ generation. And another, contemporary to the saga of Jon/Ginny/Freddi, involving a creepy admirer of Freddi’s whose attentions become more and more sinister as the story goes on.

All these threads do finally come together in the end, but not soon enough or compellingly enough to stir much interest in the outcome. Occasionally the constantly shifting point of view and timeline had me completely disoriented. Sort of like that Seinfeld routine about moviegoers who can’t follow the plots. I kept saying, “Now which one is he?” Or “Whose mother is she?” Or “Which one was he married to?” Or “But when did that happen?” I did a lot of flipping back and forth between chapters. I even made lists of characters and did a little family tree chart to try to keep everybody straight.

In the end, I found the book dissatisfying, but not a total loss by any means. I think there’s the germ of a really good novel here. And I admire Schwarz’s writing style – she has an appealing ability to paint wonderfully realistic portraits of character or place in just a few well-chosen lines. Her small-town setting seems vibrant and real, her dialogue authentic. And while I might not recommend this work whole-heartedly, I wouldn’t hesitate to try her future work. I just hope the next book doesn’t leave me feeling quite as puzzled and confused as this one did.

Review: American Wife

Written by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by Random House, 2008, 550+ pages

This review refers to an Advance Reader’s Edition of the book

It’s taken me a long time to get this book read. By now, I suppose everybody knows the story. So here’s the shortest synopsis I can come up with: Mild-mannered school librarian (who is not Laura Welch Bush) marries scion of a prominent political family, who turns out to be a future President of the United States (and who is not George Walker Bush), in spite of major social, philosophical and political differences, while at the same time wrestling with the emotional toll of past trauma and indiscretions. A little like a train wreck – it’s disturbing, but you can’t look away. Much too long and rambling, but overall I think it’s an interesting book.

I suppose I should start off by ‘fessing up – I came to this book with a real chip on my shoulder. Well, two chips, actually. First of all there’s the whole George/Laura Bush thing. And then there’s the generation gap thing. OK, three chips – there was also the name thing.

I’ll start with the name thing because that was the most ridiculous and the most quickly remedied. Curtis Sittenfeld. What kind of a name is that for a nice young female author? I was amazed to find that CS was a woman – I’d never heard of her earlier works (I mostly dozed through the early years of this century), so I was all set to read a book written by a male author. Not that I’ve got anything against female authors. Hey, two of my favorite writers are Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark and you can’t get much more female than those two. So, after I got over the initial surprise and feeling slightly deceived, I was able to move on.

For me, the George Bush connection was an enormous problem right at first (not that this is a book about George and Laura Bush, you understand – of course not). I’m probably Dubya’s biggest non-fan. Even before he became our fearless leader and the Decider and all that, the very mention of his name could set me off in an eruption of mindless rants and ravings (my husband said it made me foam at the mouth, but I don’t think that’s literally true). George Bush, after all, represents everything I was glad to leave behind when I migrated away from my home state. And the man isn’t even a real Texan – he was born in Connecticut, for heaven’s sake! See – there I go.

The generation problem was more serious (if not any less idiotic) than the first two hang-ups. Once I found out a little about Sittenfeld and realized she was in her early thirties, I again felt a bit deceived and discomfited. How could someone barely past adolescence presume to write about someone of my generation? To understand and portray what it’s like to have come of age during the turbulence of the sixties and seventies? To say anything meaningful about the doubts and problems of age now facing us Baby Boomers? Or the compromises and adjustments necessary to maintain a marriage over several decades? Authors many years older than Sittenfeld have failed miserably at the task. Who was she to expect to succeed? The hubris of the chick!

Well, after reading American Wife, I have to say I think she did a pretty good job. I felt the book was about a third longer than it really needed to be, but it held my interest all the way through (OK, I skimmed a few sections, but not many). She took a big risk, writing about such a recent period of history, not having lived through it herself. And she mostly got it right. Mostly. A few of the details are a little off – for instance, if I’d showed up at my high school in 1963 (or anywhere, for that matter), wearing a felt skirt or saddle oxfords, I’d have been stripped of my membership in the Youthquake Generation. But these slip-ups are few and far between and wouldn’t really rate a mention, if the book didn’t depend so heavily on a build-up of such period detail.

What she doesn’t do quite so well is persuade me that the Alice/Laura character could be (and remain) so attracted to and sympathetic with the Charlie/George character. From the beginning, they seem to have nothing in common. She’s well-mannered, self-effacing, bookish, and genteel. He’s arrogant, nearly illiterate, boorish, and crude. She’s working class and socially liberal; he’s old-money conservative. I know opposites are supposed to attract (especially in literature), but their relationship really does require a massive suspension of disbelief. I mean, the man has the brain power of a sand dollar, and yet she gives up her career for him! And abandons her best friend to marry him! And stays married to him for thirty years – and bears him a child! Oops, there I go – foaming at the mouth again.

Will Cuppy

This is the 59th anniversary of the death of the great American satirist Will Cuppy. Not as familiar or as widely read today as he should be, Cuppy was a very popular essayist and reviewer during his lifetime. And although a very private, even reclusive individual, he was well-known and respected in the literary world of his day. He published articles in the New Yorker, wrote the “Mystery and Adventure” review column for the New York Herald-Tribune, and also wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1940s he was the editor of three collections of stories in the crime and mystery genre.

But his finest works were his books of satirical essays and stories about nature and historical figures, starting with How to Be a Hermit in 1929. That book grew out of Cuppy’s experience keeping house for himself (he never married) in a shack on New York’s Jones Island. It became an immediate best-seller when it appeared and went through six printings in four months. It was followed by How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931, How to Become Extinct in 1941, and How to Attract the Wombat in 1949.

However, the book he’s most remembered for today (and my favorite) is The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, which was pulled together by his friend and editor Fred Feldkamp, and published posthumously in 1950. It’s a wonderfully researched, and at times absolutely hilarious, book about the great figures of history from Khufu and Hatshepsut in ancient Egypt, to Captain John Smith and Miles Standish in Colonial America.

Cuppy was very serious about his subject matter, even though he was writing in a comic and satirical vein. According to Feldkamp:

. . . before writing a line on any topic – or even thinking about what he might write – he would read every volume and article on the subject that he could find – including, in many cases, obscure books no longer available in this country. This was standard operating procedure, whether the topic in question was the Giant Ground Sloth or Catherine the Great.

After having absorbed this exhaustive amount of material, he would make notes on little 3-by-5 index cards, which he would then file under the appropriate subheading in a card-file box. Usually he would amass hundreds and hundreds of these cards in several boxes, before beginning to block out his piece.

This research and scholarship shows itself, at least in the case of The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, in the hundreds of humorous footnotes that accompany the text. And although Cuppy’s work is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, you’re always aware that it really does contain quite a lot of legitimate historical fact, which somehow makes it even funnier. Cuppy employs a pseudo-scholarly tone, and the humor is gentle but relentless, and builds throughout each piece – which makes it difficult to give examples. But I’ll try a couple.

The book’s second tale, “Hatshepsut,” ends with this paragraph and its accompanying footnote:

Thutmose III died in 1447 B.C. in the fifty-fourth year of his reign, or the thirty-second counting from the death of Hatshepsut. None of his obelisks, inscribed with whopping big lies about his seventeen campaigns, remained in Egypt. They were picked up as souvenirs and carried to distant lands. One of them, known as Cleopatra’s Needle, although it has nothing to do with Cleopatra and never had, is now in Central Park, New York City, where it causes passers-by to pause for a moment in the day’s rush and inquire: “What the hell is that?” It is called Cleopatra’s Needle because the world is full of people who think up those things. If you ask me, it always will be.
[Footnote: In the reign of Amenhotep IV, or Ikhnaton, the Hittites grew so strong that the Egyptian Empire fell apart. I forget, at the moment, what became of the Hittites.]

Or, another example, toward the end of the chapter on William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda:

The Bayeux Tapestry is accepted as an authority on many details of life and the fine points of history in the eleventh century. For instance, the horses in those days had green legs, blue bodies, yellow manes, and red heads, while the people were all double-jointed and quite different from what we generally think of as human beings. . . .
[Footnote: I don’t know who the people were who made the thing, but I know plenty of people just like them.]

Maybe just a bit more (I love this stuff). Here are a couple of excerpts from the chapter on Hannibal, about the Carthaginians:

Meanwhile the Carthaginians grew richer and richer by peddling linens, woolen goods, dyestuffs, glassware, porcelains, metalwork, household supplies, porch furniture, and novelties all along the Mediterranean. They used a system of barter to start with, but they soon found out that there’s nothing like money. They had learned most of their tricks from their parents, the Phoenicians, who were the most skillful traders of antiquity.
[Footnote: They sailed by the stars at night, depending chiefly upon the North Star. Ask a friend to point out the North Star some night and see what happens.]

Phoenician sailors were the first to establish intercourse with foreigners, an idea which soon proved its worth all over the world. Nobody had thought of it before.
[Footnote: The Phoenicians employed an alphabet of twenty-one consonants. They left no literature. You can’t be literary without a few vowels.]

Will Cuppy died on September 19, 1949, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. He’d been suffering from declining health and depression, and had taken an overdose of sleeping pills ten days earlier. Decline and Fall was published a year later in 1950, and a second posthumous volume, How to Get from January to December followed in 1951. Sadly, most of his works have gone out of print over the decades. But a check of online sources shows that Barnes & Noble have an edition of Decline and Fall listed, and Amazon.com indicates David R. Godine is apparently bringing out a new edition of the book, scheduled to appear this month. And that’s good news indeed – everyone should know Will Cuppy.

Review: The Gargoyle

Written by Andrew Davidson
Published by Doubleday, 2008, 468 pages
This review refers to an advance reading copy of the book

Just a short note about The Gargoyle. There’s not a great deal to say about the book that hasn’t already been said, and said again. Unless you’ve been buried in a coal mine for the last few months, or out mapping the migration of the yellow-headed parrot through Ecuador, by now you’ve heard all about Andrew Davidson’s best-selling debut novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of a nameless (unless I’m mistaken?) porn film maker who is badly burned in an auto accident. This happens in the first chapter, and the next hundred or so pages are mainly filled with pretty gruesome details about his hospital treatment and recovery. If Davidson were a less talented writer, most readers would probably give up somewhere around page 7 when the doctors are performing their first “escharotomy” – slicing through the main character’s charred skin with scalpels to give the swollen tissue room to expand.

But if you hang on, you get to the best part of the story. One day, a beautiful and mysterious sculptress of gargoyles appears suddenly at the burn victim’s bedside and begins to tell him tales of their lives as lovers in an earlier incarnation, hundreds of years ago. She insists her stories are true; and over the next months, she takes him into her home, nursing him back to health, and giving him more and more details about their former lives together. She tells him stories of other lovers, too. And reads Dante to him. And cooks him elaborate feasts. And takes him for midnight swims at the beach. All the while, madly sculpting more and more of her “grotesques” – until eventually their situations are reversed and our hero has to begin looking after his caretaker.

This is a first novel and, of course, it shows. It’s not fine literature, but it’s a darn good read. I took it to the beach this summer, and it kept me up late every night. The characters are engaging, and there’s quite a lot of humor for a book about such an appalling situation. It’s a really good love story – no, it’s several really good love stories. And it even has a bit of a literary mystery thrown in at the end. It’ll make a terrific movie – I wonder if Johnny Depp has read it.

Review: The Fires

Written by Alan Cheuse
Published by The Santa Fe Writers Project, 2007, 113 pages

The pair of short novellas that together make up Alan Cheuse’s The Fires are excellently crafted and emotionally compelling works exploring themes of memory, love, loss, and renewal. As I read them I was often reminded of J.D. Salinger – almost as if we’d dropped back in on Franny and Zooey, now in their middle years with adult problems (and problem children) of their own. I’m not sure whether or not Cheuse would like to hear that, but for me it’s a great compliment.

In the first work (also titled “The Fires”), Gina Morgan, middle aged and menopausal, must travel to Uzbekistan to deal with the complications of retrieving her dead husband’s body after he’s killed in an auto accident. If that’s not bad enough, she also has the problem of carrying out his last wish – to be cremated – in a Muslim country where cremation isn’t practiced. In “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson must deal with the aftermath of his daughter’s expulsion from college for setting fire to a grand piano in the college concert hall. Thus, the two instances of fire, another uniting element.

There was really only one part of the two novellas that I felt was something of a let down, and that was Cheuse’s use of the sudden, unexpected return of menstrual flow as a convenient metaphor for renewal and rebirth. (Didn’t Erica Jong use this, too? Maybe I’m not remembering exactly – it’s been a lot of years since I read about Isadora Wing and her high-flying zipless sexual escapades.) Anyway, it bothered me, and it was the only part of the story that seemed a bit forced. And I also kept worrying about when the poor woman was going to find a pharmacy in the midst of all her other problems.

I enjoyed The Fires so much I immediately sat down and read it over a second time – something I rarely do, even with short works. And I think it will stand up to many re-readings. These are very fine stories by a gifted and insightful writer.