I don’t mind unhappy endings

This week, Helen at a gaullimaufry is celebrating Sylvia Townsend Warner, a 20th century British novelist, poet, and short story writer.

Since Townsend Warner is one of my favorite authors, I’m joining Helen and others in trying to convince everyone to read more of this little-known author’s work — in my case, I’m pushing her short stories (although her novel, The Corner that Held Them, is really really good). In the past, I’ve posted reviews of Townsend Warner’s short stories here, here, and here. For this week’s celebration, I located a fourth collection, A Stranger with a Bag (1966/2011), and found myself back in familiar Townsend Warner territory: unsettling glimpses into the lives of people who, even half a century later, I feel I could probably meet on the next corner. In other words, no one particularly special — just everyday folks, facing everyday events.

But each with a slight twist. For instance, the middle-aged brother and sister in a small town passionately in love with each other. Or the 10-year-old boy who asks a traveling salesman to kill his father. Or the young wife who leaves her oppressive husband and mother stranded on a moor when she drives off in their car but runs out of gas just as she calms down enough to go back for them.

These stories all date from the early 1960s. Most are set in England, and only two feature  child characters. In the rest, adults, usually middle-aged, struggle through their daily lives, negotiating relationships with family members, lovers, acquaintances — and themselves. Townsend Warner doesn’t write cheerful stories (although there are funny moments), and few of her characters end up happy.* Yet the insights into why people do what they do are so powerful, that I find myself, story after story, drawn in.

Photo courtesy Donal at ComeHereToMe.com. Find out what this photo is about at https://comeheretome.com/2013/07/03/gogartys-swans-on-the-liffey/

“Swans on an Autumn River”, for instance, starts out on a sour note:

As he quitted the Aer Lingus plane from Liverpool and set foot for the first time in his life on Irish soil, he was already a disappointed man.

28 words in, and I dislike the protagonist. Who could be disappointed on first setting foot in Ireland? Townsend Warner explains:  Norman Repton, “aged sixty-nine, hearty as ever though overweight”, is disappointed that the Aer Lingus stewardess has become a block of ice in response to his uninvited caress along her leg. Then, with the ending of this same first paragraph, Townsend Warner arouses my sympathy for this despicable man:

At his age, such disappointments are serious. You are only young once. At the time it seems endless, and is gone in a flash; and then for a very long time you are old.

Ah, recognition. I know old age is no excuse for bad behavior (in fact, absolutely nothing excuses bad behavior), but I at least understand this man. He wants to be young again.

Later, Norman almost redeems himself when, from his hotel window, he spots several swans on the river and rushes down to see the beauties up close, grabbing bread for them from the hotel restaurant on his way out. Then seagulls horn in, crowding out the lovely swans, and Norman, in his attempt to shoo the marauders away, manages to knock himself unconscious on the pavement. The story ends as some locals run to the hotel to call for an ambulance.

Nope, no happy ending for Norman.

Twitter, @ReadingSylvia (19 October 2018)

The most beautiful story in this group, “A Love Match”, shows us what a good marriage should look like. In their small English village, Justin and Celia Tizard live publicly as proper brother and sister, but they’re actually involved in an incestuous relationship that began during WWI and will last for decades.

I can hear the questions: How can a story about a taboo relationship be “beautiful”? How can any writer make sympathetic characters out of such people?

Well, I can only say, we’re talking about Townsend Warner, who herself lived for decades with her lesbian lover. If anyone knows the beauty of a loving, devoted, loyal — yet forbidden — relationship, she does, and she’s a great writer who is willing to tackle topics that others generally avoid.

If you’re unfamiliar with Townsend Warner’s writing, do try to find something by her and read it. You can start with “A Love Match”, which is available here.  Go ahead. I dare you.


*See Lory’s discussion, Do I Have to Read Depressing Books, at The Emerald City Book Review for an exploration of this business of unhappy endings.

Posted in Am reading, short stories | Tagged | 17 Comments

A well-governed shark

North Cape, Norway, 2008

It’s time for another progress report on my reading-the-sea project. For this post, I had planned to include notes on Melville’s Billy Budd, but I’ve been busy having fun instead — fun reading other books, that is, so BB will have to wait a bit.

Along with a quite enjoyable revisit to the Norfolk Broads and Lake District via Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, I’ve been in several of the world’s oceans, guided by authors exploring the true stories behind two important adventure tales.

Robert Kraske’s Marooned: the Strange but True Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe (Clarion Books, 2005, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker) holds few surprises and is a bit skimpy on detail,* but for a quick read it does the trick. What’s most interesting, and sadly ironic, is Selkirk’s life after his rescue in 1709. He enjoyed London for a while, but eventually grew bored with it, moved back to his family in Scotland, and then, briefly, into a cave — trying to recreate the comfortable solitude he’d found on Juan Fernández Island, where he’d become a quiet, peaceful, satisfied man.

If Selkirk, inspiration for William Cowper’s line, “I am monarch of all I survey”, had been offered the chance to return to sole possession of his island paradise, would he have accepted? In 1721, while serving in the British Navy, he died of yellow fever off the coast of Africa and was buried at sea. That, at least, was a fitting end.

Another true story that inspired a great novel was the fate of the whaleship Essex, which was stove in by a whale in 1821. In the Heart of the Sea (Young Readers Edition, (2002/2015, originally titled Revenge of the Whale), is Nathaniel Philbrick’s shorter version of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Philbrick, historian, author and sailor, takes us into the bloody and dangerous world of whaling. Unlike Kraske, Philbrick isn’t parsimonious with details. Even though this version for teens has been adapted and abbreviated, there is still plenty of gore, including the truly gruesome weeks in an open boat, when the few survivors began eyeing each other hungrily. (True confession: I had to skip a couple of pages here and there.) Not many survived, and at least one survivor spent a few years in an institution.

And then, when I saw this next book, I couldn’t resist: Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011), also by Nathaniel Philbrick. This was another fast read, with 28 brief chapters on Nantucket, whaling, ships, Melville’s influences (especially Hawthorne), characters, madness, religion, dictators’ tricks, and so on. But of the three books reviewed here, this was the most interesting and nearly convinced me that I need to include Moby-Dick in this reading project.

Philbrick’s point is that, like all works of art that survive the years, Moby-Dick has something to say to everyone, in every era. Most likely this is because we’re still essentially unchanged as humans, despite 5000 years of progress, and books become classics because they reveal the hidden corners of our selves.

I’ll include just three quotes to show what Philbrick does here. First, don’t get bogged down in what the white whale symbolizes. Move back and take a broader view. Moby-Dick is

… a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.

Then look at the ship. According to Philbrick, the Pequod “is the mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted.” That’s the paradox of America in a nutshell — a society of “free men” throwing off the shackles of tyranny, then in a greedy rush trampling expendable men, women, and children throughout the following centuries.

And my final point, because I want to keep this brief, Philbrick reminds us of the difference between civilization and barbarity. In Chapter 64 of Moby-Dick, Fleece (ship’s cook) lectures the sharks that, while tearing at the dead whale along the ship’s side, are disturbing Stubb’s supper: “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.”

We’re all barbarians, but some of us are just more self-governed than others.


*If you’re looking for marooned-on-an-island drama, you can’t do better than Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, based on the true story of a 19th century Native American girl left behind on an island off the coast of California.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Classic, History | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Quiet Backwaters

The novels featured in today’s brief post (another for my Melville bicentennial celebration) are set on rivers. Two are classics, and the third deserves to be. I’ve read all three before, but they fit so neatly into my on-the-water theme that I couldn’t resist.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) need little introduction. They’re spring-time books for me, despite lengthy chapters set in fall and winter in Grahame’s idyl. There’s nothing like “messing about in boats,” as the Rat says, and reading these books makes me want to hire a canoe or rowboat and load it up with camping gear.

J and his two friends, Harris and George (to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency), hire a boat to row up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford. They may have trouble both on water and ashore, but there are still long quiet days of glorying in the sounds and sights around them. From a boat on the river, churches, pubs, manor houses, hills and woods seem almost framed by water and sky, inspiring J’s musings on nature and life — only to be brought up short when he loses control of the tiller and they run into the riverbank or another boat.

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis, inspired by Jerome’s novel, gives us a mash-up of 1930s cozy mysteries, P G Wodehouse, and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, all within a time-travel and chaos theory framework so complex that I’m stunned Willis could keep all her plot threads straight.

Her basic premise is this: In 2058, Coventry Cathedral (pre-WWII version) is being restored down to the tiniest detail — except for location, which in mid-21st century is a shopping center in Coventry, so the restored Cathedral is set in Oxford. Ned is trying to find out why no one can locate a certain vase, and he travels back to 1888. Missed connections, near drownings of both humans and animals, absented-minded Oxford dons, very proper butlers, shady spiritualists, and imperious gentry complicate Ned’s job, which is to correct a “parachronistic incongruity” caused by his colleague, Verity, bringing a 19th century cat into the 21st century. That is to say, Verity may have set the web of time reverberating enough to change history. Willis is clearly having fun here, name-checking some of her favorite mystery characters (Miss Marple, Poirot, and Peter Wimsey are the most frequent) — even J, Harris, George, and Montmorency make a brief appearance — but she has also given us something to consider: who, or what, makes things happen? Do the actions of individuals matter? Or is it all just a matter of chance and, as one character puts it, “natural forces acting upon populations”?

Next up, something by Melville, and two more books inspired by him, all new to me.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Animal tales, Humorous | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

It’s never too soon to think about Witch Week

Oscar Wilde, October 2018

Balmy breezes, later sunsets, heading for the shady side of the street — these can mean only one thing: Witch Week is coming.

Chris at Calmgrove and I are already deep into plans for Witch Week 2019, a week-long celebration of things fantastical in memory of Diana Wynne Jones, author of Witch Week. This novel, volume 4 of the Chrestomanci Quartet, is set between Halloween and Bonfire Night (aka Guy Fawkes Day), and thus our own celebration of fantasy books.

Taking over from Lory Hess at The Emerald City Book Review, Chris and I co-hosted last year’s Witch Week, which featured the theme Fantasy + Feminism and honored the late Ursula K Le Guin. This year we will focus on VILLAINS!

So, what’s on the schedule? Chris and I have invited potential contributors who have kindly agreed in principle to consider writing guest posts. (Sorry for all the hedging, but given busy lives and general vicissitudes, it ain’t over until it’s well over.)

With luck, there will be appearances by villains from Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, heavies from a few graphic novels, Discworld antagonists, Narnian malefactors, and even some Shakespearean evil-doers. As this event is inspired by a Diana Wynne Jones novel, the read-along will be Cart and Cwidder, the first installment in her Dalemark high fantasy quartet.

Ritchard, Cyril, Hook in 1960

To make things easier for those who want to join us, Chris and I have decided to host Witch Week on one blog only, with Chris first up. I’ll have the reins in 2020, and we’ll continue back-and-forthing yearly for as long as we can do this.

So, dear readers, watch for updates, and put your foot on a copy of Cart and Cwidder. Preparations and previews will heat up on our two blogs in September, and then come the end of October, Chris will lead us through an exciting exploration of fantastic fantasy villains.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Villains, Witch Week | Tagged | 2 Comments

The voyage so far

As promised, here’s the first of what may be several updates on my tour of books set on water in honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Initially I had planned to make these reviews brief, but, well, you know … ideas.

The voyage has been easy running so far, starting with a couple of old favorites from Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973), writer and illustrator of books that combine history, geography, infographics, full-color illustrations and story to fascinate any reader who isn’t thrown by details.

And to honor the author of the extremely detailed Moby Dick, what could be more appropriate?

Seabird (1948) takes us through 4 generations of a family of sea captains. The dynasty begins in 1832 (HCH provides a handy chronology at the end), when 14-year-old ship’s boy Ezra carves Seabird from walrus tusks, with coral eyes, amber beak and slate feet. 60 pages and more than a century later Ezra’s great-grandson Ken is a pilot who carries Seabird as mascot on every flight.

Along the way, in penciled sidebar illustrations, HCH informs us about whaling — the various species of whales, the gruesome business of “cutting in”, whaleboats and harpoons, try-works, oil lamps, even scrimshaw have sidebar moments (did you know the term for carving ivory is “scrimshandering”?). But not just whaling gets this treatment: masts, spars and rigging; the evolution of coral atoll; 49ers prospecting for gold in California; bridges; arctic wildlife. It’s a glorious read.

And then there’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, HCH’s “lessons” on the geography and economy of the Great Lakes. At the tail end of winter, a young man near Lake Nipigon in Canada carves a wooden “paddle person” and sets him atop a mound of snow; when the melt begins, Paddle-to-the-Sea will head down hill to a stream that takes him to a pond that empties into a small river — and so on and so on. Through the five Great Lakes, and despite two near disasters (a sawmill and a forest fire), Paddle-to-the-Sea eventually makes his way to the Atlantic, and not just by water. At one point he’s carried by dogsled, at others on board sailboats and freighters. People rescue him and then return him to the water. A copper plate on his base (for ballast) provides these people a place to record where he’s been found. His journey takes 4 years, and by its end, the young man who carved him is loading his canoe when he overhears news of his paddle-person’s successful trip. Fitting and satisfying.

Finally (for this post), I’ll include a bit about Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star-Gazer (recommended by Lizza Aiken, to whom I send grateful thanks). There is much to admire in what Naslund has done here, turning Melville’s massive tale of masculine fury on its head and shoving Ahab aside to a minor role. Famous people (Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry James) mix with Melville’s characters (Starbuck and Ishmael play important roles here), as well as others created to populate Una’s world — a mostly feminist, progressive, and enlightened cast that includes a gay judge, a gay artist, a dwarf, an escaped slave, Unitarians, Quakers, and Universalists, not to mention women baking pies, sewing quilts, knitting socks, watching for their seafaring husbands’ ships, and wielding ivory dildos (no joke — you can find these for sale online).

157 chapters. 667 pages. All crammed to the gills with Una’s story. Born to poverty (emotional as well as financial) in a one-room house on a patch of Kentucky bottom-land, at 12 she moves to a happier and more love-filled life at a New England lighthouse, where she meets the two men who set her on the next stage of her journey. Disguised as a boy, she follows them aboard a whaler, they’re shipwrecked (stove in by a black whale), rescued and eventually taken to Nantucket aboard the Pequod. Yes, that Pequod. Not exactly a “meet-cute”, but it’ll do.

Marriage, wealth, a child, and widow-hood follow, but Ahab plays only a minor role here — Una is the center of this story, and with Ahab mostly absent, we find out about life for those women waiting in port. For Una, it’s a life full of intellectual challenge and spiritual enlightenment — the opposite of what the whalers undergo as they chase ambergris and whale oil. Abolitionists, Transcendentalists, amateur astronomers, artists and armchair philosophers give Una plenty to think about, and her own moments alone, watching the sea and sky from her widow’s walk, help her piece out a happy acceptance of who she has become. At one moment she contemplates chopping off her right hand (guilty of cannibalism during that fateful shipwreck), but she says, no. There is plenty of good work left for that right hand to accomplish, as atonement for the horror on the sea.

Moby Dick (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Thus Una’s yearning to do good counters Ahab’s all-consuming desire for revenge. No doubt, the contrast of feminine and masculine is Naslund’s goal here. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about women vs men. Plenty of Naslund’s male characters show feminine behavior, and a few women (including Una herself) make masculine moves. Instead, Naslund seems to be analyzing models of how we respond to what happens to us. Ahab’s final letter to Una (found by Ishmael and much later recited to her) includes this passage:

Moby Dick! When I top thee, THEN, let my punishment begin, for I embody the great Lie: Hate, revenge, my wounds — they are greater than Love.

Yet Una, just a bit earlier, starting anew after losing her husband and then her house, rejects such negative thought:

Where we choose to be, where we choose to be — we have that power to determine our lives. We cannot reel time backward or forward, but we can take ourselves to the place that defines our being. The idea abides with me like faith. I will be happy to return to this place where domesticity marries the cosmos.

There were moments in this novel that made me cringe (the Dickensian coincidences, the obvious reaches for links to Moby Dick), but overall it’s a comforting (if lengthy) antidote to the harsh world Melville gave us. Often, Una, while watching the night sky, feels herself one with all creation — made of stars, our atoms circle eternally through the universe, and we are always with our loved ones.

Next up: a nostalgic cruise through England, taking in 3 books set on rivers.

Posted in Adventure, Classic, Fan fiction, History, Travel | Tagged , | 19 Comments

Sea Fever

Wreckers Coast of Northumberland, JMW Turner (1833/34), Yale Center for British Art

Matching my current reading focus is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” (quoted here, in full, from The Poetry Foundation’s website):

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Ernest Shepard, 1908

But then so also does this quote from The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

I’m not a sailor — too prone to mal de mer — but I like the idea of heading out for an adventure on the sea, and thus my theme for this year’s reading list (coinciding, as I wrote previously, with Melville’s 200th anniversary). Since that post, I’ve added to my list: Kenneth Grahame’s classic paean to life on the water, plus an obscure novel called Ahab’s Wife (had to get Moby Dick into this somehow), plus To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis’s time-traveling tip-of-the-hat to Jerome K Jerome’s wonderful Three Men in a Boat. To say nothing of Swallows and Amazons (forever!).

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Classic, Fiction | 10 Comments

Sea cruise, baby!

JMW Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842 (de Young Museum)

No need to get excited. I plan to travel virtually, in honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Over the next few months I’ll be aboard stories set on ships (with perhaps a rowboat or two) that will take me up rivers, across oceans, and through canal locks.

While the blog-o-meters clock pages conquered in Moby Dick (worth it!, says this 3-time reader; it’s nearly time for my 4th voyage aboard the Pequod), I’ll be cruising through some shorter works, including other dark tales from Melville, along with several of his progeny: Joseph Conrad, Eva Ibbotson, RL Stevenson, Holling Clancy Holling, and Julian Barnes. I’m indulging myself with several re-reads, but there will be some first timers as well (I’m looking at you, Lord Jim and Billy Budd).

I have no master plan or goals (other than to be entertained), and I make no promises to report much beyond what I’ve read — although I’ll allow myself to encourage (or discourage) any who wish to follow in my wake.

Meanwhile, I’ve committed to joining Lory’s appreciation of Robertson Davies @ ECBR, and of course Chris @ Calmgrove and I will be planning something exciting for this year’s WitchWeek in October (only 6 months away? Yikes!).

And also meanwhile, my 2018 NaNoWriMo project, a dystopian sci-fi thriller that’s currently challenging my knowledge of bitcoin mining, is filling my days with procrastinative research.

Finally, here’s a very young Dick Clark setting the tone for my next few months:

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Classic, Fiction, History | Tagged | 8 Comments