Saturday, April 30, 2011

April Reading Roundup

Warm weather has once again come to South Florida, and that means one thing at my house. Time in the pool, which tends to detract from my reading time. Memo to self: must replace pool chair so I can do both at the same time. But overall, April wasn't so bad.  Here's how it shakes out:

Books set in Antarctica:
Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Piňol
Victim of the Aurora, by Thomas Keneally (which also adds another book to the 2011 Aussie Author Challenge)
Pym, by Mat Johnson

General Fiction

The Civilized World, by Susi Wyss

Scandinavian Crime Fiction
The Troubled Man, by Henning Mankell
Frozen Assets, by Quentin Bates

  Crime fiction from Mexico
The Black Minutes, by Martin Solares

other book related stuff:
1) My book group this month read Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert -- which we all liked, but which sent us into a debate about why Emma behaved so very badly. 

2) Added to the Amazon Wishlist this month -- absolutely nothing! That's got to be a first.

3) Books bought this month (lots of Indie Publishers) 

The Shadow of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda -- Europa Editions
The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler 
The Collaborators, by Pierre Siniac -- Dalkey Archive Press
First Fingerprint, by Xavier Bonnot -- Quercus
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Train to Budapest, by Dacia Maraini -- Arcadia Books (currently reading)
I May be Some Time, by Francis Spufford
I Kill, by Giorgio Faletti
Agaat, by Marlene Van Niekerk -- Tin House Books
Hocus Bogus, by Romain Gary -- Margellos World Republic of Letters

I think that covers my month. I'm rearranging all of my bookshelves and starting to question why I'm hanging on to so many books I'll probably never read again.  I see another round of book purge in my immediate future -- I already have a huge shopping bag earmarked for my local library.

so that's it...happy reading to everyone!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Civilized World, by Susi Wyss

Henry Holt

Many thanks to Christine at Henry Holt for offering me this ARC. I really have to apologize for the length of time it's taken me to get the review done -- I actually finished it some time ago.

 The Civilized World is really a set of short, interwoven stories that together examine the lives of six women, both in Africa and in the United States. These women have issues that threaten their sense of personal security and safety in the "civilized" world, and try to deal with them the best way they can. Many of the individual stories have been previously published as standalones, but here they come together, glimpses into different cultures are shared, and women try to understand the world in which they live.  Sometimes that's not such an easy task, and each of the main characters has several obstacles put in their respective ways that make things even tougher.

The main characters of the book are an American woman, Janice, and an African woman named Ajoa. Ajoa works for Janice as a masseuse behind the walls of Janice's Ivory Coast home.  She's also a twin, and she and her brother Kojo are living away from their homeland of Ghana. Ajoa dreams of opening a salon where women can come, relax and feel safe in each other's company.  While Ajoa works, Kojo is in with the "wrong" sort of people, and has decided that money will be made faster through theft.  Janice is single, and has lived in Africa for a while, very trusting at first until a break in at her home leaves her feeling vulnerable.  While Janice sorts out what and who will make her feel happy and safe  in Africa again (including a desire to adopt a baby), Ajoa eventually makes her way as a businesswoman, but she discovers a terrible secret that threatens her happiness. In and around these two women's stories, other women have their own issues with finding peace and safety in their own lives, both in the US and in Africa. 

It's very easy to see that there are trade-offs to be had, and while someone like Janice has been around Africa for years and in fact, is often viewed as a kind of expat know-it-all, other American women there just don't get it. Nor do they really want to, as in the case of Ophelia.  But on the flip side, there's Comfort, one of the African women in the story, who goes to the US to visit her son and his family.  She doesn't get why her son's wife Linda doesn't make his favorite foods, or doesn't stretch the baby's head in the way African women do theirs.  You get the impression that Linda doesn't feel that her baby is safe with Comfort around, but she can't take the time away from her job to be with her new infant.  The question of what is considered "civilized" bridges both cultures, and this theme is also one that runs throughout the story.

To be very honest, I'm not a huge reader or fan of women's fiction, but I do like stories set in other countries among various cultures.  I liked the way this novel was structured in terms of the short stories in which the characters crop up throughout each other's chapters. The African scenes, in terms of landscape, seemed realistic, and it's obvious that the author not only feels at home there, but loves the country and its people.  That is not surprising, since she spent a number of years there.  The political situations, the poverty, and the uncertainty of Africa's future were all touched on, but only very lightly.  In fact, this entire book seemed rather light in tone. It's quite easy to read, moves quickly, and can be finished in a matter of a couple of hours. My only complaint, really is that the author really made the African women seem so much stronger and more alive than  the American women, who in general seemed to be dull as dishwater, cranky or in Janice and Linda's case, smug and superior. I don't know if this was the author's intention, but that's how it felt to me, and I felt as though the author was moving into a stereotyping zone, not a good thing.  

I think readers of women's fiction would really enjoy this book. The author has a very quiet style of writing that might appeal to many  readers of that genre, and it's not too complicated to get through in terms of topic and theme.  I thought it was okay -- I'm one of those people who likes to get more into the politics, the poverty, the results of warfare and basically all of the seriously problematic issues, so this was much more of a gentler read than I normally prefer.  Having said that, I'm seeing 4 and 5-star reviews of this novel, so it's obviously a hit with many readers.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

a personal note -- my sister is a hero

Rarely do I make posts about my personal life, but today calls for an exception to that rule.  I want everyone to know that my sister Martha is a hero. A tornado hit where she lives today while she was teaching. Martha teaches children with special needs, and was a bit worried about the severe weather heading her way. She had her iphone on while teaching, and asked the weather service to post an update as the weather was getting worse and she was getting very worried. When the service posted an update, she headed her students into one of the school's inner rooms -- even before the school officially sounded the alarm --- where they would be safe, and not ten minutes later, disaster struck. When she went back to her classroom afterwards, the place had been demolished, including ceiling tiles on the floor that could have been nasty projectiles. All the time in the inner room with her students, she managed to keep them calm through singing. Then she went home, only to find that much of her home had been destroyed.

My hat's off to this woman and I'm so proud to be her sister.

offer on the table -- A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (international okay, too!)

Well, I confirmed that I am a total moron this week. I ordered this book from B&N along with another, then promptly forgot it was coming, and ordered one from Amazon.  So I just happen to have an extra copy sitting here, needing a home.  If you'd like a chance to have my extra copy, all you have to do is leave a comment below by May 4th. will select a winner on May 5th.  Add a comment only once, please. Good luck!

*Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Piñol

Originally published as La Pell Freda, 2002
translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan

"We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love."  With those words, Catalan author Albert Sanchez Piñol begins his tale of a young man who takes a position as a weather official on a remote island, out of the normal shipping lanes, along the coast of Antarctica.  He is the unnamed narrator of this tale, and has opted for this position to exile himself from the rest of the world, needing some time and space to "negotiate between the devastating failures that came before and utter darkness that is on its way." 

Upon landing, he is startled to find that there is no sign of the previous weather official, who is to return to the world on the very same ship.  Not only is he absent from his cabin, but the inside of his quarters is in complete disarray, with additional signs of abandon and neglect. Hoping to find the missing man, accompanied by the captain, the narrator walks to the only other structure there, the lighthouse.  There they find a man, Gruner, in charge of keeping the signal going, who refuses to answer any questions.  Refusing the captain's offer of leaving the island, the narrator returns to his cabin and begins to put his new life in order.  Things are fine that first day, but when the night comes, the narrator finds himself under attack from something not human, a group of beings who call the island home.  Barricading himself within the cabin, he fights back with what little he has.  Mercifully, the nights are very short, and when the daylight arrives, he realizes that his survival will depend on getting to the lighthouse and securing the cooperation of Gruner as well. This will be easier said than done, as Gruner has his owns reasons for remaining isolated.  The rest of the novel details their survival not only against these odd creatures, but also against each other and themselves individually.

This is a very vague synopsis, but to say more would be to ruin it for anyone who might want to read this novel. If you carefully consider Nietzsche's statement about "he who fights with monsters," you've got the very essence of the novel.  It seems at first to read as a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel (and reminded me a great deal of the work of HP Lovecraft) but it can also (and should be) read as an allegorical reflection on our fear and distrust of anything we perceive as Other.  It's also an examination of the human capacity for brutality,  as well as a look at the perils of self-imposed isolation that can change an ordinary human being into the worst sort of monster.    The ending, although purposefully vague, shores up the idea that life is more or less cyclical, and  leaves it to the reader to contemplate whether or not there is any hope for the future.

If ever there was a case for "don't judge a book by its first few pages," Cold Skin is it.  I was scarcely into it when the first Antarctic nightfall came & the attacks began, and I thought "well, I'm done with this one," as I'm not really big on books with monsters unless they're the Lovecraftian sort that live tucked away on the fringes of other dimensions, threatening to make their presence known when the conditions are right.  But I reread the back cover, noticed that the book had won some kind of literary award, and figured that they don't give out literary awards for simple monster stories, so there must be something I'm missing.  And there was. Once I was determined to get back to the book, I couldn't put it down.  While I won't call the writing brilliant (and this may be a translation issue, who knows?) , it was good enough to keep me reading, all the time wondering what was going to happen next.

Recommended, with caution -- while on one level it's a horror story, but not just because of the creatures who inhabit the sea, so people interested in Cold Skin for its sci-fi/horror aspects might be a bit disappointed in its philosophical bent.  People who read mainly literary fiction might be turned off due to its focus on said creatures, but will probably get the most out of the novel. 

one further note: A movie project is in the works, and if the filmmakers don't screw up the adaptation, it could be a good one. 

fiction from Spain

Thursday, April 21, 2011

*Victim of the Aurora, by Thomas Keneally

Harvest Books/Harcourt, 2001
originally published 1978
219 pp

Author Thomas Keneally was, according to the preface, an "Antarctic buff,"

...for the same reasons people today are teased by questions of space colonization. Antarctica was part of this planet yet it was not. It had no human natives to give it a history and a mythology. The humans who went there to give it meaning were not part of normal communities.  They were woman-less men, Antarctic monks.... What they went through was the ultimate test of human flesh available to their generation, and any who came home from the experience were greeted as a sanctified brotherhood and met by the reverence of their world. They were men who transcended their time...

Keneally also wondered about the seeming lack of conflict (especially in the official journals and the later writings of expedition leaders and other officials) among crews of various explorers, even though “the expeditionary parties must have been as riven with presonality conflicts and even disorders as are any modern endeavors of exploration.”  As a reader of several nonfiction, first-hand accounts of various explorers, this is something that I’ve also wondered about.  It's human nature for groups of people stuck together for long periods to experience some sort of conflict, and in the desolation of Antarctica, such close proximity in darkness that lasts so long, the cold, and the isolation from the rest of the world  must have most certainly made some sort of impression on the human mind.

Victim of the Aurora is a story of one such fictional expedition that took place in 1909, related by Anthony Piers, a well-known artist of the day and now looking back at age 92 from his retirement home.  Piers was invited by the expedition leader, Sir Eugene Stewart, to accompany the Antarctic explorers as the expedition artist. Also invited were a popular journalist (who today might be a star among the tabloid set) and a cinematographer.  The inclusion of a group of such notables on a scientific expedition was purposefully designed to use the fruits of their labors during their time in Antarctica to sell to make up any debt left at the end of the trip.  But shortly after the expedition arrives in Antarctica, the journalist, Victor Henneker, winds up murdered.  Stewart has the onerous task of not only coordinating all of the scientific observations and preparations for his own attack on the Pole, but now he must head up an investigation to discover who among his crew caused Henneker's death.  This will not be an easy task, because it seems that Henneker kept a journal in which he exposed the deepest secrets of many of his companions, so everyone seems to have had a reason to do away with him.

If this were the full story, well, it would be both a decent and entertaining murder mystery and there wouldn't be much more to say, but it's what's underneath the murder  that really makes up this novel.  As the author writes,

...the concept came to me to write of a great Antarctic exploration of the Edwardian era as if it were indeed (ital) a product of the same world that produced World War I; an expedition whose crimes were a prelude to the crimes of the war.

In this context, Keneally looks at a confused morality of the period -- not simply in terms of such normal societal issues  like adultery, homosexuality, and illegitimacy and class distinctions. He also raises a number of  very intelligent questions, for example, -- how can men entrusted to such positions of authority sometimes take it upon themselves to do things that go against the grain of moral and ethical principles?  And what can be said about people who tacitly condone and participate in such actions because of someone’s interpretation of that age-old, utilitarian idea of a higher good?  What causes people to make the choice between “go on,” or “no, stop and sleep?”  And what will be the end result on a man’s psyche in the long run?  Finally, does a "civilized" person's isolation from the rest of the world have a bearing on his actions in his current environment?  How this all relates to this particular Antarctic expedition I won’t reveal here, so as not to spoil it for anyone who might be interested in reading this book., but there is a great deal to consider as you read through the pages of this novel.

Although originally written in 1978, and nowhere near as well known as his Schindler’s List, Victim of the Aurora is still a good read.  You can read it as simply a murder story, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than an Antarctic whodunit.  There are a lot of interesting characters, many of whom wobble in some areas of the moral zone yet simultaneously condemn others for doing the same thing in other areas. At times the book is a bit tedious and a few times tends to stray, but all the same, I think readers will find it a most interesting novel. 

fiction from Australia

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Swamplandia giveaway winner

The random number generator has spoken and the winner is #8.  That means Col of Col Reads (and a Gator girl!) will be receiving this book shortly.  Congratulations!!!

From time to time, I will be offering more books to give away, so if you didn't win this time, there will be plenty of opportunities. Thanks to everyone who played. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Offer on the table: Swamplandia, by Karen Russell -- international is okay

To my surprise, somehow I ended up with two copies of this book, so the extra copy needs a home.   If you would like a chance to have it, please leave a comment by Monday, April 18th, and I'll choose someone at random to send the book to.  It doesn't matter where you live -- I'll mail anywhere! 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

*The Antarktos Cycle: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Chilling Tales, ed. Robert M. Price

Chaosium, Call of Cthulhu Fiction 6031
572 pp

You'd never know it, based on the books that I normally read, but for years I've been a huge fan of HP Lovecraft, a pulp-fiction writer who died in 1936.  A number of his stories, which can be classified as both horror and fantasy, appeared in the old pulp journal Weird Tales and other pulp mags of the time.  It really wasn't until after his death that he became popular, as is the story of many a writer, and thanks to renewed interest, not only are his books being published and his stories anthologized, but a number of modern authors have acknowledged the influence of Lovecraft on their own modern works.  Robert M. Price and Chaosium publishing put together a series in which Lovecraft's works are featured, generally showcasing not only Lovecraft's writing, but authors who influenced HPL as well as stories by writers based on Lovecraft's influence.  The Antarktos Cycle is just one of these collections, and I've been collecting the first edition publications in this series for years.  This volume features stories set mainly in Antarctica, although there are two oddballs at the end. In The Antarktos Cycle, the main theme that runs throughout is that there are some things that humankind is not yet ready to know about -- and that maybe Antarctica is a place better left alone. 

The centerpiece of this book is Lovecraft's work "At the Mountains of Madness," but it begins with Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, (described earlier, so no need to reiterate here).  Poe is followed by Jules Verne and a sequel to Poe's work,  "The Sphinx of the Ice Fields" which picks up the story about ten years later.  Verne continues Poe's tradition of racism and very bad science, and adds a few incredulous explanations as to Pym's fate as well as the inhabitants of Tsalal.  Hmmm.

John Taine (pseudonym of Eric Temple Bell) follows next, with his "The Greatest Adventure," first published in 1929.  Taine's story begins with the delivery of a strange creature to wealthy scientist Dr. Eric Lane, whose very ambition in life was to "trace life to its secret source and lay bare its mystery."  The creature was purportedly still warm when the visitor,  Captain Anderson,  picked it up, and the Captain reveals that it came from  the South Polar Seas. Lane is intrigued, and eventually is talked into mounting an expedition there. Thus the adventure begins, and the scientists discover a secret that could potentially doom mankind if released. But really, I'm not sure why this one was included in the book -- it probably could have been easily left out and no one would have been the wiser.  This story is more suited to an anthology of "evolution run amok" kind of book.

And now, the main event, Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."  Originally written in 1931, it was first published in 1936 in a pulp mag called Astounding Stories.  This is one of my favorite pieces of all of the Lovecraft lore, one which carries a theme reiterated throughout his stories: a warning to mankind to stay away from forces that could bring about the end of humanity.   Narrated by geologist William Dyer from good old Miskatonic U, the story is meant as a warning to the leaders of an upcoming expedition to the Antarctic against any further plans of exploration there.  And Dyer should know -- he was part of an earlier group of scientists who went to Antarctica, discovered a mountain range much higher than even the Himalayas.  The scientists were split into two groups -- those who first found the mountains by air and landed to explore, and the one headed up by Dyer, monitoring the group by radio. The first group tells of an amazing discovery -- and then radio silence sets in.  When Dyer goes to find out what might have happened, he comes across a set of ruins in the mountains, and what he discovers there is enough to drive his companion Danforth to madness.  They decide to keep their findings secret -- but the upcoming expedition compels Dyer to break his silence.

"The Tomb of the Old Ones," by Colin Wilson follows next. Matthew Willoughby, is swept up in his grandfather Daniel's belief in an ancient civilization existing under the Antarctic ice.  Sadly, technology hadn't advanced to the point where Daniel could offer proof, but that's not the case for Matthew.  Along with Trask, an inventor, he travels with an expedition to Antarctica and with the help of lasers, begins his search.  As in previous stories mentioned here, he comes away with the belief that there are some things better left alone.  This one is tough to get into, with a lot of extraneous stuff to sift through, but it's okay.  "The Tomb of the Old Ones" actually incorporates Lovecraft's work, including "The Mountains of Madness."

Arthur C. Clarke also has a mercifully short piece  here, "At the Mountains of Murkiness," which is a rather silly spoof of Lovecraft's story.  The editor mentions in the introduction to this story that Clarke was a fan of HPL, so it's all done in good fun.  This one absolutely could have been left out with no consequence.

The movie "The Thing" in its various incarnations (1951 directed by Howard Hawks; 1982 directed by John Carpenter),  came from the next short story, in this volume called "The Thing From Another World," written by John W. Campbell, Jr.  Its original title was "Who Goes There," and was written in 1938.  An expedition went to Antarctica to investigate the discovery of a second magnetic influence at the South Pole, and discovered an alien aircraft in the ice, evidently there for 20 million years.  Using thermite (an ice softener),  they try to get to the inside of the ship, but make a mess of things when the ship is destroyed.  The pilot, however, the group captures.  After it is thawed, it has the remarkable ability to take on the form and persona of anything or anyone.  The question is -- who is it now?  And how can it be stopped?  This one is good, a classic sci-fi/horror mix that will keep you reading.

The last two short stories are "The Brooding City," by John S. Glasby (which is set in Africa, so why it's here I don't know) and "The Dreaming City," by Roger Johnson, which also doesn't claim an Antarctic setting. Both are written in a very Lovecraftian tone, but I'm not sure why they ended up in this novel otherwise.

As is the case with any anthology of stories, you have to take the good with the not so good and that is the case here. There are some stories that could have been left out (and I haven't seen the updated version of this book so perhaps they were), but there are also some really good ones here.  My guess is that this book is most suited to Lovecraft fans, but I think also that there's enough of a mix that sci-fi/horror/fantasy fans could find something they like as well.  Modern horror readers that prefer blood, guts and gore probably won't find this one's much more of a cerebral mix where the horror comes from inside the reader's head rather than being splashed about the pages.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

*Pym, by Mat Johnson

Spiegel and Grau
322 pp.

There are just some books that have the power to take you out of the real world for a while so that all there is is the story in front of you, and Pym is one of those.  This book fits the bill of that old phrase "a rollicking good yarn," while simultaneously offering its readers the author's ruminations on the issue of race.  Trying to pigeonhole this metafictional novel is not a simple task: it's got it all -- alternative history, fantasy, adventure, satire, and above all, comedy.  I think there were only a few moments when I didn't laugh while reading this book.

The story begins when Christopher Jaynes fails to gain tenure at the university where he's teaching.  Jaynes is the only black male professor on campus, and was hired to teach African American Literature.  But he would rather teach American lit., and because he believed that early American literature (including his favorite, Edgar Allan Poe) held the "intellectual source of racial Whiteness," and "the twisted mythic underpinnings of modern racial thought." He  offered a course called "Dancing With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind" to explore his ideas.  He believes his work is helping to discover why America has not yet become a postracial society, and also that his work is helping to find a cure. As he explains to the bow-tied university president,  "If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it."  And Jaynes believed that Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (and some of his other works, but he is somewhat obsessed with Poe's Pym) was a key source in understanding the source of the assumptions of Whiteness.  But these classes were poorly attended, one of the reasons given to him for denial of tenure, as well as the unspoken reason that Jaynes refused to sit on the school's diversity committee. 

Jaynes also collects antiquarian texts, and one day shortly after leaving the university, finds an item in a catalog for a "Negro Servant's Memoir," from 1837.  As it turns out, it's not really a slave narrative, but rather a major find: an African American work written before the Civil War. As he begins reading, to his very great surprise, he finds that what he has is nothing less than the autobiography of Dirk Peters, the "half-breed" companion of Arthur Gordon Pym from Poe's novel.  Jaynes has an OMG moment where it comes to him that Pym's narrative may not have been fiction after all, and the proof is in his hands.  So if The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is true, then Jaynes realizes that

...Tsalal, the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland, might still be out there, uncorrupted by Whiteness. That there was a group of our people who did achieve victory over slavery in all its forms, escaping completely from the progression of Westernization and colonization to form a society outside of time and history. And that I might find them.

Jaynes decides to go to Antarctica, using his cousin Booker and a crew completely composed of African Americans  to get him there. And this is where the story really takes off, so I won't add any more of the plot to avoid spoiling it for anyone who might be interested.  

Pym is one of the best novels I've read this year. The author's writing comes off naturally so there's no contrived feeling in his prose.  His characterizations are what make this book -- you will instantly recognize various character types as you read, making it all the more real.  Jaynes' best friend Garth is enamored of paintings done by an artist named Thomas Karvel (think Kinkade), and loves Little Debbie Snack Cakes, which he packs by the caseload for the stay in Antarctica. His cousin Booker is a civil rights activist, and constantly spouts off about white people and the system when it suits him. There's also a gay videographer who runs a video website, along with his partner; even in the worst of spots the camera is rolling.  Another character is an entertainment lawyer, who often stops the Antarctic action in debates about what they'll find and who will have the rights to it.  And along the way, the author provides his insights and commentary on other works that followed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for example, Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness and a sequel to Poe's work by Jules Verne, besides delving into Poe's novel itself.

The action gets a little odd toward the end, but overall, if you're up for a great read, Pym is it. It satisfied my reading thirst for quirkiness, for comedy and satire and for a good story. Keep in mind though that it veers toward the fantastical, so if you can't suspend your disbelief, this isn't the book for you.   You don't have to read Poe's original work to get it, as the author does a great job of presenting the story in his novel, but on a personal level, I'd suggest doing so. I got a lot more out of Johnson's novel having read Poe's first -- the style is purposefully similar to the original and there are little nuances from Poe that Johnson also captures in his book without explanation to the reader.  It's definitely not a mainstream read -- and even though it's part fantasy,  it's also an excellent commentary on race and human nature all wrapped up in one of the funniest stories I've ever read.  While you're laughing, you're also learning.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

*The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allan Poe

Dodo Press, 2011
originally written in 1838

I bought The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket because I wanted to read Mat Johnson's recently-published book Pym (now finished) which is based largely on parts of this book.  Poe's novel is the story of a young man who eventually winds up stowing away in the hold of a ship called The Grampus -- and who gets much more than he bargained for.  It's not Poe's usual short horror fare, nor is it a novel of detection. It is at once a metafictional  adventure story and fantasy, serialized in The Southern Literary Messenger in the 1830s.  That it was written as for serial publication shortly becomes obvious as you delve into the book.

The plot revolves around the adventures of the title character, and the book purports to be Pym's narrative of a series of strange occurrences at sea.  A preface authored by Pym tells of how he was encouraged to offer his narrative to the public, and Pym's subsequent refusal to do so in fear that he would be ridiculed by the public. In short, he felt like no one would believe him, because what happened would be construed as so far fetched as to be impossible -- and that perhaps the reading public would see his story as mere fiction.  So, a Mr. Poe of the Southern Literary Messenger talks Pym into letting him publish it in this magazine "in the garb of fiction" -- allowing Pym's story to finally be told.  The subtitle of this novel is as follows, probably the longest I've ever encountered.

" Comprising the Details of Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery on Board the American Brig Grampus, on Her Way to the South Seas, in the Month of June, 1827. With an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivers; Their Shipwreck and Subsequent Horrible Sufferings from Famine; Their Deliverance by Means of the British Schooner Jane Guy; the Brief Cruise of this Latter Vessel in the Atlantic Ocean; Her Capture, and the Massacre of Her Crew Among a Group of Islands in the Eighty-Fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude; Together with the Incredible Adventures and Discoveries Still Farther South to Which That Distressing Calamity Gave Rise."

Young Pym hatches a plan with his friend Augustus Barnard to stow away on the ship The Grampus, which is captained by Arthur's father. The two concoct a fake two-week visit to a relative's home in New Bedford, thinking that after the Grampus is safely away at sea, Pym would send news to his parents of his whereabouts via a passing ship.  The plan is launched, and Pym finds himself in the hold, safely stowed with provisions until Augustus can get back to him later.  But it's a long time until Augustus returns -- and as Pym is in trouble down below, the situation becomes a bit desperate for him. Eventually Augustus returns and  informs him that a mutiny had occurred on the ship and all is not well.  When Pym eventually is able to come up from below, things go from bad to worse -- an adventure involving storm, shipwreck, starvation, sharks and a rescue.  But wait -- rescue is a relative term in this case -- and Pym and his remaining companions from the Grampus find themselves aboard the schooner Jane Guy, heading down to the Cape of Good Hope and eventually  toward Antarctica. Somewhere around latitude 83 degrees 20', longitude 43 degrees 5' west, the Jane Guy sails into an inlet on the hitherto-uundiscovered island of Tsalal, where the crew encounters some natives who've never come into contact with the outside world, and the strangest and most fantastical adventures of all begin.

The story is told via the means of first-person narrative along with a number of journal entries. Part adventure story, ongoing travelogue, scientific exposition (although it's really obvious much of the science is in Poe's head), and definitely part fantasy, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym  is also a glimpse into the pre-Civil War southern white mindset, most especially in terms of white superiority. Frankly speaking, this aspect of the narrative just doesn't let up, and pretty much anyone not white is given less than honorable treatment.  For example, the worst of the mutineers ("a demon") was the black cook.  Upon the Jane Guy's arrival at Tsalal, everything, including the landscape, is black. The natives there  tremble with fear at the sight of anything white, they are black down to their teeth, and Poe affords us the image of the sneaky and ruthless savages who can't be trusted and speak gibberish.  Even one of Pym's companions throughout his adventures is known throughout the story as a "half-breed," and I could go on.  While I understand completely that this was typical of the time, and I'm not making any judgments here, it's quite obvious that Poe had an agenda.  He pushes it to the point where the message at the end comes through loud and clear:  salvation comes by virtue of  one's very "whiteness." But this is impossible to explain without giving away the show, so I'll leave it up to other readers to figure it out. And before I forget, there's also the issue of the superior white man exploiting other lands for resources, which seems to have been status quo in the mid-1800s as well. 

I've seen this book described in Amazon reviews as a book of horror -- this it is definitely not, so if you were expecting a horror story, don't pick this one up.  It is still worth the read, because a) it's kind of a fun adventure story and b) it's spawned a number of other works from later authors -- none the least of which is HP Lovecraft's most excellent At the Mountains of Madness.  As far as the racist component, well, I'm someone who likes to think in context of the times and this book definitely puts you there. Not that it's correct, but it was what it was, and that's just a fact.   I have to admit skimming through some of the book, for example, the long-winded descriptions of the Galapagos tortoise, the brief but tedious history of Antarctic exploration and so forth, because frankly it was quite dull and sometimes downright laughable; Poe seems to have read a bit on each topic and filled the rest in with his imagination. There are also a few plot holes that you can't help but notice.  But when all is said and done, if nothing else, it's a great book for a rainy day -- recommended for Poe fans, for fantasy readers and for those interested in a good old seafaring adventure story.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

April: Antarctica

My whole reason for selecting Antarctica as a reading topic this month can be summed up in one word: Pym.  I pre-ordered Mat Johnson's book months ago, because it seemed like something right up my alley -- quirky, metafictional, and a full-on crazy adventure story.  Then when it arrived, I'm thinking well, I must have other stuff based in Antarctica on my shelves, and sure enough, after consulting the endless tbr pile, there were many from which to choose. And also, I've always had this soft spot for Roald Amundsen's story where he beats Scott to the South Pole, so it's a great excuse to reread Huntford's wonderful The Last Place on Earth.

And if the truth be told, it's starting to heat up here in South Florida, enough to where I went out boating with friends yesterday for hours and hours, and ended up with probably the second worst sunburn I've ever had.  The first happened my first time in the Bahamas, where stupid me went out in a tank top in the August Caribbean sun for the entire day with no other protection.  Anyway, yesterday's burn is still so bad that I can feel heat radiating between my back (the worst of it) and the scrubs shirt I'm wearing, and cold (even it it's only in print) seems like a good thing right now. 

To add to a few books I found in my personal library,  I discovered and ordered some titles based on a  website I found dedicated to Antarctic fiction called Tekeli-li, a phrase which incidentally comes from the first book in the lineup, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allen Poe.  Here are a few titles to start:

obviously, Pym, by Mat Johnson (which I've actually finished now)
The Antarktos Cycle: Horror and Wonder at the Ends of the Earth, edited by Robert M. Price (the centerpiece of which is HP Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness"
Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Victim of the Aurora, by Thomas Kenneally, which will add another book to the Aussie Author Challenge
The Last Place on Earth, by Roland Huntford

As usual, aside from highlighting these reads,  I'll also be working on the tbr pile; this month I've set aside Edward Docx's new book (The Devil's Garden), Henning Mankell's new Wallander book (The Troubled Man), and Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore, all of which I'm in a big hurry to read.  And in between -- more crime fiction, always more crime fiction.