My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

by James Wallace Harris, October 3, 2014

Is there one novel that defines your life?  Have you return to it decade after decade throughout your life?  Has the author spoken to you across time, space and the gulf between life and death?  Does the narrative commentary resonate with your heart and mind?  Do lines of dialog feel like they are speaking to events in your life like you’re listening to a Greek oracle, or studying hexagrams from the I Ching?  For Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch by George Elliot is one such book, and she’s written My Life in Middlemarch to explain her literary touchstone.

my-life-in-middlemarch

A year and a month ago I wrote “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about such writers.  Most of us have many such books and writers that haunt us, but Mead focuses on one novel, and one writer, and writes a whole book about how that one story haunts her life.  If you read the reviews at Goodreads you’ll see that most readers give her four stars out of five, with few rating it a full five stars, and with some giving far fewer.  How much you like this book will depend on whether or not you’ve read Middlemarch, how much English lit professor you have in you, and how much more you’d want from Mead.

Mead does a fair amount of travel and research to give us background on George Elliot and her most famous novel, but not nearly as much as a definitive biography.  Nor is her tale of book-love a proper memoir.  Personally, I was quite taken with her story as is, and it makes me want to reread Middlemarch for closer study.  However, it doesn’t really live up to its promise either.  And I’d really like to see someone pull off such a memoir.  It would have to be far more personal, far more detailed, far more psychological.  Not detailed in biography or close reading of the text, which I’m satisfied with Mead’s work here, but in giving us intimate personal reading details that make us feel true reading obsession.

Two books that come closer to mind of what I’d like to read is Among Others by Jo Walton, a novel about a lonely girl growing up reading science fiction, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a nonfiction novel that integrates Plato into a man’s life.  The passion I’d like to see is such biblio-memoirs is what I found in Possession by A. S. Byatt.

Even though I feel My Life in Middlemarch is a very worthy book, I longed to read Mead’s deep personal details about each time she read Middlemarch.  I ached to know how a 20th century woman could find so much love and understanding in a 19th century woman.  I wonder if I could do what I want with my favorite childhood novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.

JWH

Wide Sargasso Sea–Sex and Madness

Jean Rhys explored the depths of the feminine mind living in a masculine dominated society.  Rhys wrote many stories and novels before becoming famous late in life with Wide Sargasso Sea, a literary prequel to  Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontëWide Sargasso Sea (1966) can be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre (1847), and is a completely stand-alone novel.  Jean Rhys gives a 20th century explanation to a mystery in a 19th century novel, and I can’t help believe that is to a certain degree psychologically, and maybe sexually, autobiographical.  Both Rhys and her character started out life in the West Indies and ended up living in England, both dying there.

jean rhys

Although Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are novels, I wonder if we can read the minds of their authors in their stories.  Both books closely follow their characters, with Brontë anticipating stream-of-conscious and Rhys using multiple first person stream-of-conscious.  Even though Rhys makes Wide Sargasso Sea completely self-contained as a story, it does cleverly use Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre as a starting point for her story.  Both authors use their story to express views on the role of women in society, and to show how they are oppressed on many levels.  In a way, Rhys attacks Brontë for copping out, because she uses the tragedy of Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway to undermine Brontë’s happy ending.

Wide-Sargasso-Sea

A good part of Wide Sargasso Sea is it’s setting, and the history of life in the West Indies just after slavery was abolished.  First we follow Antoinette as a child so we can see her mother, a woman who has lost her husband, and must care for two children with no income.  We see her descend into insanity.  Antoinette grows up with black servants whose charity saves these poor whites, who the ex-slaves refer to as white cockroaches.  The black people of the story vary greatly in personality, ethnicity and ethicality.   The novel explores many themes, the prominent one deals with sex and madness, but it also deals with the confrontation of the races in the 1830s West Indies, and the lush tropical life there.  Nature is oppressive in both weather and the emotional moods it inspires in the people.  All the characters suffer from a languid disposition because of the atmosphere and biosphere.  In this steamy jungle locale there is a lot of sex, repression and sexual oppression going on.

I have not read Rhys other novels and stories, but from the introduction to my edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, she had lot of affairs that ended badly, and often lived at the bottom of society depended on the generosity of men that weren’t always good to her.  That’s why I felt her novel is autobiographical to a degree.  Rhys wasn’t locked in a room for years, but she did live in isolated exile for years.

I also feel Brontë used Jane Eyre to express her gender repression and desires.  In both books, women lives are contrasted with those of slaves and servants.  And I can’t wonder if Rhys felt contempt for Brontë when she gave Jane a happy ending with Edward Rochester.  Rochester is unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but he’s shown with varying levels of sympathy, but ultimately he’s seen as cruel and self-serving.  He’s a tragic hero in Jane Eyre, but a tragic villain in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Another theme in Wide Sargasso Sea is Voodoo.  Christophine is an old black woman that cares for Antoinette her whole life before she goes to England.  She sides with the whites, and the blacks fear her, because they believe she has special powers.  Christophine always tells people they are foolish to think such thoughts, but we are given one powerful scene to believe otherwise.  Sex is always at the periphery of this novel, but it comes to the forefront at a hallucinatory peak in the story, where passion, madness, and maybe Voodoo all come together.

The Rochester character often tells the island people, both white and black that they don’t know how to hide their feelings, but he’s often surprised when they apparently can read his mind or predict his future.  Even the black children boldly state the fate of the white people with sharp obviousness that the Englishman finds unnerving.  At first this man is patronizing to the black people, defending them to his wife, but slowly he realizes they know more than he does, at least about their world, where he is an invader.

I wish I knew how much Rhys remembered of her island upbringing when she wrote this book.  Her first sixteen years were lived in the West Indies before she moved to England and Europe.  How much research did she do about the island life for the novel?  And most important of all, are there any novels written by people living in the islands in the 1830s?  How can we know if this 1966 novel represents a true picture of the West Indies in the 1830s?

Wide Sargasso Sea is on many Best Books lists.

 

JWH – 8/29/14

Making Things in America Again

Good news on Wall Street does not equal good news on Main Street.  America is recovering from the recession, but not the middle class America.  There’s an old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  Factory Man by Beth Macy is a book about John D. Bassett III, the history of Bassett Furniture, and JBIII’s fight against globalization.  In one chapter, the tough old Bassett who fights tooth and claw to keep his factories and workers in America, says you don’t fight globalization with MBAs but with coaches who know how to compete.  His company Vaughan Bassett Furniture came out with the Cottage Collection line of furniture that was easy to manufacture, quick to ship, designed making it hard to import, competed on price and was stylistically more appealing than the competition coming in on container ships.  He had to use higher tech machines and fewer workers, but it was made in America and it sold like crazy.

Factory Man by Beth Macy

There are businessmen, historians and economists that teach for a country to thrive it must have a robust middle class and it must make things.  America has stopped making things, losing 5 million manufacturing jobs in a decade, and our middle class has been shrinking since the 1970s.  The relentless drive to increase the bottom line by selling cheap has forced corporations to chase low cost labor around the globe.  As Beth Macy reports, globalization means Americans can buy lower cost furniture that may even be better made, but overall more Americans can’t afford globalized bargains because their jobs at making things went overseas to make those bargains.  And we’re talking about people fighting to keep $13 an hour jobs, not union wages.  Now they are trying to find part-time work at minimal wage, or even catch-as-catch can work for $4 an hour.

Factory Man provides several pieces of the puzzle I’ve found lately that illustrates the current economic landscape.  Capital in the Twenty-First Century offers many more revealing pieces, and books like The Unwinding by George Packer offer other significant pieces.  Plus I’m reading hundreds of articles on the internet about business and economics that fill in holes too.  I’ve put together enough pieces that I think I can see a general outline, and it’s not good.

I am reminded of a lesson I learned from a SF book back in the 1960s, Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany.  A kid from a backward planet wants to run off and see the galaxy, and he is given advice by an old man.  The kid is told there are three kinds of thinking:

  • Simplex
  • Complex
  • Multiplex

People who grow up in a homogenous society are taught rules, mores, etiquette, customs, beliefs that are simple, easy to understand and are often black and white in their exactness.  Think of ISIS in Iraq.  If you don’t pray a certain way, off with your head.  If a simplex person then travels to another culture they will find many rules, mores, etiquette, customs and beliefs that conflict with their simplex beliefs.  To survive requires thinking in a complex way.  Living becomes hard, especially if you want to keep your old ways of thinking, yet let others live with their ways of thinking.  Multiplex thinking is when you can believe two things that on the surface appears to be polar opposites.  For example, being an atheist that supports freedom of religion in the separation of the church and state.  It is multiplex thinking to hold the belief that all religions and non religions are better supported if the government doesn’t endorse any one religion.

Factory Man is a very multiplex thinking book.  We never know if John Bassett III is a hero or asshole, but is shown in countless roles, often conflicting.  Macy doesn’t say if globalization is good or evil, but she provides many examples of pro and con impacts.  The book doesn’t tell us if exporting jobs was right or wrong, but Macy provides many personal stories about what happens when globalization changes peoples lives.  What Macy shows us is the impact of these people and ideas on other people, and as the reader, we must come up with our own multiplex view of the book.  But to understand a true multiplex view of Factory Man requires reading many other books.  It helps to have read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, the guru for globalism.  If you think simplex and only worry about what’s good for America you will fail just as fast as accepting globalism as a complex solution.

Macy’s multiplex take on globalism still tends to lend towards one side, since her sympathy is with millions of American workers who have lost their jobs.  Marc Levinson, who wrote another view of globalism in The Box:  How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger reviews Factory Man at the Wall Street Journal.  He concludes:

Globalization takes the blame for many ills these days. But the implosion that Ms. Macy chronicles owes less to import competition than to executives in a sheltered industry who failed to keep up with a changing world. It is to his credit that John D. Bassett III thought differently. It is the country’s loss that so many of his counterparts did not.

I tend to agree Levinson and JBIII, and think “Made in America” must compete by competing—that to counter the negative side of globalism there must be some localism that fights back with a passion, and JBIII was one such person.  Most of JBIII peers, economists, business journalists, business school PhDs hated his protectionist stance, but like JBIII points out over and over again, the laws were in place, and he had no trouble proving wrong doing.

As wages rise overseas, some manufacturing has trickled back to America.  Globalism of the 2020s will be far different than the 2000s.  To actually achieve multiplex thinking with global economics will require getting beyond the philosophy that low cost is the only way to compete.  Consumers need to stop buying by the cheapest price.  There’s another book to read on that subject, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.

We need to consider many factors in our buying decisions.  First and foremost, what does making this product do to the Earth?  Second is to ask how it will improve our life.  Third is to consider how the success of this product will improve the lives of others and the economy.  And finally, we need to consider the price.  Will paying 25% more help the Earth, get you a better product,  and put someone in the middle class?  Then paying more means getting a lot more.

We don’t need more rich people, we have plenty of them, what we need is more middle class people and fewer poor people.  Achieving that goal will actually create even more rich people.  That’s multiplex thinking.  It’s too bad our business leaders think so simplex and compete by price alone, never considering the impact to the Earth, the economy and their customers.

Factory Man is actually a very emotional book, that often made me laugh and cry.  It’s down right inspiring too.  Which is pretty weird when you think it’s about furniture manufacturing.  The New York Times even reviews it suggesting it would be a great movie.  Tom Hanks actually tweeted the author that he gave it 142 stars.

JWH – 8/20/14 

Jesus, The New Testament and Bart D. Ehrman

I have now read five books by Bart D. Ehrman about Jesus and The New Testament.  This is rather strange considering I’m an atheist.  The books were

  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005)
  • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (2009)
  • Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011)
  • Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012)
  • How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)

The reason why I’m so fond of Ehrman’s books is he’s a historian writing about how Christianity came about and does not digress into theology.  I study the origins of Christianity in the same way my friend Mike studies ancient Greek literature and philosophy.  Ehrman works very hard to walk the razor’s edge seeking the academic truth of things, but in doing so, often offends the faithful. 

Most people in America who consider themselves Christians aren’t interested in the historical details of their faith—they believe because that is what they were taught growing up and never took the time to study The New Testament.  If they did, they’d find it to be a black hole of endless scholarship.   Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and he says his classes are very popular with all kinds of people, and points out that his conclusions of historical scholarship are middle of the road, and most of what he teaches has been common knowledge for a long time in seminary schools.  Readers are often shocked by what they read in Ehrman’s books but that’s because the ideas are new to the readers, and not to historians of Biblical scholarship.

If what you know about Christianity and The New Testament is was what you learned in Sunday School you might find Ehrman’s books both fascinating and a challenge to your beliefs.  Ehrman started out as a Evangelical himself, but after years of Bible study has become an agnostic.  His books do not attack beliefs or believers.  Ehrman is the kind of truth seeker that learned the ancient languages of The Bible so he could do his own translating, and got a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Ehrman moved from believing in The Bible to becoming obsessed with how The New Testament came about.  He has written over twenty-five books on the subject, some for the general reader and others for academic scholars.

We know very little about the actual man Jesus, but through the detective work of textual analysis, anthropology and historical studies of the times in which Jesus lived, Ehrman pieces out one view of Jesus that he claims is a pretty common view among Bible historians.  This is best seen in Did Jesus Exist?  Then Ehrman explains how the followers of Jesus made him into the God we know today in the book How Jesus Became God.  Then his books Misquoting Jesus, Jesus, Interrupted and Forged explores how The New Testament and Christianity evolved in the first four hundred years after Jesus’ death.  If you read these five books you’ll have a pretty good overview of the current historical studies on Jesus and The New Testament.  Ehrman also has a number of entertaining courses at The Great Courses site.

I read these five books in the order they were written and published, but I’d recommend reading them in a different order if you are new to Ehrman.  They all cover the same big territory, but they each focus on threads of finer detail.

Did Jesus Exist?

I’d start with Did Jesus Exist? because Jesus is how everything got started in the first place.  Ehrman finds the most objection to his books by fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of The Bible, and strangely for this book, by atheists and agnostics who wish to disprove the existence of Jesus.  There is a growing population of humanists who wish to turn Jesus into a myth, and Ehrman’s historical work undermines their beliefs too.   Basically, Ehrman walks a middle ground between the fervor of belief and disbelief.

Did Jesus Exist 

I wish the conclusion to this book was available online so I could link to it.  Ehrman explains how he attended a meeting of the American Humanists Association to receive their Religious Liberty Award and was surprised to find the non-believers spending so much time talking about religion.  He was also shocked that many of these scientific minded people have thoroughly embraced books by writers who claim Jesus is a myth.  It disturbs Ehrman because he knows the pseudo-scholarship approach to proving Jesus is a myth has as much academic validity as Creationism and Intelligent Design and these proclaimed embracers of science don’t seem to know that.

Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? has to attack ideas many of his most popular fans cherish.  Ehrman’s books clearly disproves the fundamentalist view of the literal interpretation of The Bible, which agnostics and atheists love, but his scholarship also finds consistent evidence that a man named Jesus did exist.  So, in one book Ehrman undermines the faithful and the unbelievers.  Ehrman shows the same kind of airy philosophy that goes into convincing people that Jesus was a God is the very same kind of philosophical slight-of-hand that goes into making Jesus a myth.

Whether you’re a believer or disbeliever, don’t you want to know the truth?  I’m not saying the Ehrman  knows the absolute truth, but I am saying his middle of the road, conservative academic approach is more scientific and reliable than just taking other people’s word for things.  What we all need to do is learn to demand the evidence for anything claiming to be true.  And we need to learn the difference between bullshit evidence and research consensus evidence.

Ehrman embraces the study of history as if it was a science, demanding evidence.  The mythicists, as Ehrman calls the Jesus as myth people, promote their beliefs without real academic vigor.  Some only offer wild speculation, but others, some even with PhDs, do attempt to make their points with evidence, but Ehrman makes a good case their evidence is poor, and their logic weak.  It’s a fascinating book that sets the stage for his next book.

How Jesus Became God

Ehrman works to prove that Jesus did not see himself as God, or even divine, but that his followers after his death did deify him.  Ehrman carefully and academically explains the historical existence of Jesus and how Christians transformed a flesh and blood man into divine being to serve their purposes.  This is a great book for The New Testament Bible study because Ehrman spends most of his time exploring the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, Acts and other references in The New Testament to show how Jesus changed over time.  The textual analysis Ehrman makes should be obvious to anyone who just reads The Bible.  So, why haven’t most Christians noticed what Ehrman points out?

How Jesus Became God

Most people who read The Bible, read it in pieces, jumping around as it’s presented in a Sunday School lesson or sermon each Sunday.  Ehrman suggests reading it by comparing all the stories from different books about the same event.  This any reader can do.  What Ehrman brings to the table that most average Bible readers don’t have is the scholarship that explains when various parts of The Bible was written and by who.  When you plot what was said when, you’ll begin to notice that The New Testament is full of contradictions but they make sense if you look at them on a timeline.  It’s quite obvious that theology developed over time, and the theology was constantly changing.  Even within The New Testament its possible to see that Jesus went from a man to a God.  However, to fully understand this transformation requires further study of Christian theologians and their writing for the next three hundred years.  How Jesus went from human being to The Trinity took three hundred years to hammer out, and there were a lot of strange side trips along the way, especially by Christians now called heretics and Gnostics today.

How Jesus Became God sets things up nicely for the first Ehrman book I read.

Misquoting Jesus

Have you ever wondered how The New Testament was written, edited and published?  Especially since it was put together over a thousand years before the printing press.  Have you ever wondered who wrote The New Testament?  Many people think it’s the absolute word of God, as if God dictated The Bible to someone.  Have you never noticed that Bible stories have many different points of view, writing styles and often contradict each other?  Have you never wondered how something that was written almost two thousand years ago could be published consistently without errors and changes?  Have you ever tried to copy a passage in a book by handwriting?  How well did you do?

Misquoting_Jesus

Once you learn that who Jesus was is determined by who was writing about him, then it’s easy to understand how The New Testament was put together and why.  Actually, The New Testament is very poorly edited because its far from consistent.  It leaves in evidence of earlier thinking that was supplanted by later theology.  And it becomes all too obvious that your favorite Jesus quote depends on when that portion of The New Testament was written, and what his orthodox followers believed at that time.

And as manuscripts were passed around the Roman world, copied by scribes in different locals, with different beliefs, often they were altered to reflect a particular view of Jesus.  We don’t have the original drafts of The New Testament books, but we do have hundreds and hundreds of copies that showed up hundreds of years later.  We can trace changes that were made as they circulated from community to community.  And scholars have also detected forgeries.

Forged

Have you ever heard that some of the books in The New Testament were forgeries?  For example, for over a hundred years now, some scholars believe some of the books claimed to be written by Paul were obviously not.  How did they learn that?  Plagiarism and forgery did not exist like it does today, so Bart D. Ehrman has to explain how the various books were written and how their authorship got attributed.  Back in the early days of Christianity, in the first four hundred years after Jesus died, being a famous author was not like it is today.  If you wrote something you wanted people to believe, you often said it was written by someone else, someone people would believe.

forged

Using contextual study, and even computers to analyze style and content, it’s possible to determine if the same person wrote or did not write two different essays.  But even without the skills of a historian or a computer, it’s pretty easy to see that certain lessons from different books in The New Testament teach radically opposing ideas.  Reading Forged will show the common Bible study student how to read scripture far more closely.  This leads us to the last book I’m recommending to read.

Jesus, Interrupted

Knowing what Jesus really said is very difficult.  Most religious people assume everything printed in red in The New Testament is something Jesus actual said.  Well, historians like Ehrman would beg to disagree.  What’s so fascinating about this book is Ehrman gets to write a bestselling book pointing out contradictions in The New Testament that any careful reader should have already noticed for themselves.  I have a feeling that most believers attending church were like me as a kid.  I listened to the preacher quote a passage of The Bible and then tie in some personal experiences from his own life or people in the church, and then turn scripture and contemporary life problems into a sermon.  As a kid I never read The Bible from start to finish.  If we did, we might remember while reading The Gospel of John things said that might contradiction what we head already read in The Gospel of Mark.  Most readers don’t cross-compare, but just work to decipher scriptures one line at a time.

jesus_interrupted

Ehrman teaches readers the trick of parallel reading.  Pick specific incidents in the life of Jesus, and then read about the same incident in different places throughout The New Testament.  It becomes all to obvious that the various writers had different stories to tell, and different theology to preach.  The contrast between the stories in Mark and John are startling.  Why haven’t the average Bible reader notice that?  I’m sure many have, but I think most haven’t.

If you go searching for reviews of these books at Google you can find lots of reviewers who attack what Ehrman has to say.  Now there are different kinds of attacks.  Sometimes, other scholars call Ehrman out on his scholarship.  It seems to me that in Ehrman’s newer books he spends far more writing time explaining how he made his conclusions in comparison to other scholars, in a preemptive attack on this kind of criticism.  This makes for good writing and better reading.  The other common kind of attack on Ehrman’s work is by Christian apologists who seek to defend their specific theological view.  The quality and validity of these kinds of criticism vary greatly.

Ehrman constantly reminds his reader that he is a historian and that metaphysics lies outside the scope of historical studies.  The trouble is the true believer, especially the fundamentalist, believe that their theology is the true view of history.  They assume the metaphysical is part of history.  This is what makes Ehrman’s books controversial with certain readers.

I am an atheist.  I don’t believe the metaphysical exists.  To me, Ehrman’s books are excellent explanations on how Christianity got started in a historical context.  His books also explain to me at least, when and how some Christians acquired their theological and metaphysical ideas.  True believers don’t seem to understand that all concepts, all memes, have a history.  Someone thought them up.  Where we differ is I see them as ideas and they see them as God’s word.

These five books by Bart D. Ehrman go a long way to explaining the history of certain ideas that are programmed deeply into Western culture.  No historian, philosopher or scientist will ever be able to prove or disprove the cherished metaphysical desires of believers.  However, most believers embrace their beliefs without much analysis.  Reading these five books could dissolve such beliefs because they raise logical questions that are corrosive to simple thinking.  However, there are many believers who develop very complex thought systems to maintain their beliefs.  These people will have to read Ehrman and come up with rationalizations that counter his assertions.

JWH – 7/21/14

Falling in Love with the 19th Century

Most of us live in the present, although some of us think the grass will be greener in the future, but for a few, the past has an allure that draws us back to quainter times.  Or maybe the past is seductive because it represents an archeology of the mind, explaining how we came to be.  I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s always daydreaming about science fictional futures of the 21st century, but now that I live in the 21st century, I spend a surprising amount of time mentally retracing the steps in the 19th century of how I came to be in the 20th century.

The older I get, the more I tire of CGI science fiction fantasies and crave elegant Masterpiece Theater costume dramas about Victorian life.  I occasionally like mixing science fiction with history via steampunk stories, but for the most part I love reading actual history books about 19th century science, or reading fictional observations of the time via 19th century residents like Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Anthony Trollope, or Louisa May Alcott, or I like modern fiction that uses the 19th as a setting to understand modern times through contrast and comparison with the present.

Possession-A-S-Byatt

The allure of the 19th century is hard to explain, but lets start with Possession a 1990 novel by A. S. Byatt.  Byatt, like John Fowles before her, uses the trick of twin stories, with a couple in the present trying to decipher a couple in the past.  Byatt starts with two modern characters, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey coming together because Michell is researching poet Randolph Henry Ash, and Bailey is studying poet Christabel LaMotte, and they get on the academic trail that the two had an illicit affair previously unknown by all other scholars.  Ash and LaMotte are totally fictionalized, but Byatt creates them in such a way, quoting long poems, journals, diaries, letters that readers feel they are based on actual historical characters.  There’s even a label for such stories, historiographic metafiction.

Byatt is playing with us readers.  Because her story is entirely fiction she has 100% control over what we know and what her characters know.  At times, the readers knows more than Michell and Bailey because Byatt is the omnipotent narrator of her reality and writes third person narrative that lets us know what actually happen, while the poor academics all rush around to know the truth must piece it together with rare tidbits of surviving facts.  At other times, we follow behind the eyes of Michell, Bailey and Cropper, learning about Ash and LaMotte from the clues they unearth that generate endless speculation about the past.

There was a pitiful film adaptation of Possession in 2002 starring  Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud Bailey, Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell, Jeremy Northam as Randolph Henry Ash, and Jennifer Ehle as Christabel LaMotte.  The movie is good for seeing the visual contrast between the 19th and 20th centuries, but not for much else.  All the power of the story is in Byatt’s writing, and the movie comes across as a slim summary of the story.  The trouble is, Byatt only barely hints at the richness of the 19th century in her 555 page novel.  How much you admire Possession really depends on how much you’ve read of and about the the 1850s and 1860s.  Byatt gives us a very rich taste, making her novel worthy of the Booker Prize it won, but it’s only a start if you’re going to fall down the rabbit hole of the 21st century speculation about the 19th century.

Other-Powers-Barbara-Goldsmith

A subplot of Possession is LaMotte’s interest in spiritualism.  Most 21st century folk will not understand what spiritualism is, at least not in 19th century terms.  Beginning with the Fox sisters in 1848 a wave of fascination swept the U.S. and Europe over the idea that living people could communicate with the dead.  Strangely still, 19th century Spiritualism is intertwined with 19th century feminism.  Byatt hints at this, but for a more detailed painting I recommend Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith, subtitled “The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.”  Byatt understood that the 19th century was an awakening for women and reflected this in Cristobel LaMotte.   LaMotte was a poet in her own right, independent, living with a woman lover, when she meets Randolph Henry Ash.  LaMotte risks everything to communicate with someone she considers her equal.  Ash and LaMotte’s poetry become their language of love.

Possession is about the many kinds of possession we fall into.  Ash and LaMotte are possessed by their love, but also by their art.  Michell and Baily are possessed by the need to know Ash and LaMotte.  We, the reader are possessed by the need to understand why we love fiction, and why the 19th century entices us.  One clue for the last thing is the recent science series Cosmos.  Many of the episodes were about 19th century science and scientists.  The 1800s was a tremendous age of discovery, especially by gentlemen scientists.  Charles Darwin exploded on the Victorians like an H-Bomb.  On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin came out in 1859, the mysterious year of Possession.

Darwin made the Victorians doubt God. LaMotte was a believer, but Ash was not, or at least a serious doubter.  LaMotte was daring far more than Ash.  Byatt makes Ash more interesting because he’s an amateur scientist.  I think it’s the amateur scientist that is one of the great appeals of the 19th century to modern people.  It was an era where individuals could still figure out the mysteries of reality on their own.

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

Right around this time too, Charles Dickens began his affair with Ellen Ternan, which was also during the time he wrote Great Expectations (1861).  This affair was chronicled by Claire Tomalin in her book The Invisible Woman (1990) and made into a movie last year.  It seems there’s a certain amount of demand for stories about Victorians having affairs.  The Victorian times are when women awoke to see themselves as equals to men, both in mind and body, but it was also a time when people in general began to question the religious view of reality.

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Which ties in two other books, both by John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller, which are about Americans during this same time period, and two very important women, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller.  Once you start on the quest, it’s endless.  I could link book after book that I’ve read about the 19th century because they all amazingly fit together like puzzle pieces.  That’s the difference between reading science fiction about the future, and reading about the past.  Science fiction provides an infinity of possible futures that don’t fit together, whereas the appeal of reading history is every new book adds more pieces to the puzzle of what was, making my mental picture of the time more detailed and precise.

We can never know the future, but then, we can only know the past in fragmented clues—a hazy view.  We think we know the present, but do we?   But which is more enlightening?  Studying the past tells us how we got to the present.    Studying the present overwhelms us with details.  Studying the future only helps us know what we fear about the present and maybe hope to find in the future.  In terms of acquiring satisfying details that make us feel like we’re learning something real, studying the past seems to offer us the most philosophic bang for the buck.  Studying the past makes us feel wise.  Whether that wisdom is real or not, is hard to judge.

Reading Possession inspires me to read the English Romantic and Victorian poets, to study the Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers, to look at illustrations of Victorian decorative arts, read about the scientists, painters, architects, and study their drawings.  One of the cool thing about people from those times is they kept wonderful diaries and illustrated them with their own drawings.

Like I said, this is a rabbit hole.

JWH – 6/16/14 (Happy Birthday Susan)

Forgotten Science Fiction: All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

I’m not sure how many young science fiction readers know about Clifford Simak.  When I was growing up, he wasn’t a top tier SF writer, but a legendary author of City and Way Station.  He was loved well enough for the Science Fiction Writers of America to select Simak as their third SFWA Grand Master.  If you look at his list of novels, there’s not many famous ones besides City and Way Station.  He won a Hugo for Way Station, and Hugos for the novelette “The Big Front Yard” and his short story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won a Nebula.  I remember seeing Simak at a science fiction convention when he was pretty old, and was surprised by how little attention he got from the younger fans.  I thought he was great.

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Clifford Simak wrote a different kind of science fiction.  A kinder, gentler science fiction.  His characters were adults, ordinary people from the mid-west, and his stories often had the feel of small any town America.  City, a fix-up novels of  eight short stories written from 1944-1951, was a hauntingly beautiful series of tales told by intelligent dogs and robots about the legends of long gone humans.  You just don’t get more sense of wonder than that.

I read several of his “other” novels from the SFBC in the 1960s, but I’ve forgotten those.  Then in recent years I’ve read The Visitors (1980) and Cosmic Engineers (1939) for the Classic Science Fiction online book club.  I really liked The Visitors for its unique take on an alien invasion.  So for this month, we’re reading All Flesh is Grass from 1965.  It’s one of Simak’s many novels that don’t even have an entry in Wikipedia.

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That’s too bad, because All Flesh is Grass is pretty good, and it has an interesting distinction – it’s about a small town that wakes up to find itself enclosed in a dome—yeah, like the Stephen King novel and TV series, Under The Dome, from 2009.   King had started his novel in 1972 and tried again in 1982.  I have no idea if King knew about the Simak book, but they have similar themes too—being cut off from the world makes people act different, and of course, there’s the mystery of who put the dome over the town and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by authors who think up similar ideas separately and then to see how they execute them.  Often the idea itself dictates much of the story.  If you were going to write a story about a group of humans enclosed in a dome,  wouldn’t you pick a small town?  Wouldn’t you use ordinary people, but involve the local politician, police and doctor?  Wouldn’t everyone be wondering why, and be upset because of the disruption in their lives?  Wouldn’t there be scenes of outsiders and insiders talking to each other at the wall?  I did search the internet to find an essay on dome stories, but didn’t find one.  I did find several forums where people mentioned other dome stories.  It’s a growing micro-sub-genre.

All Flesh Is Grass is a difficult book to describe.  Note the covers.  The top one is from the first edition hardback.  The second is the 1978 paperback edition I read.  But look at the cover from this British edition.  They obviously want to promote the book as science fiction, but it’s not your typical SyFy adventure story, so the publishers tacked on a cover that visually translate science fiction to the contemporary mind.

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There are no space ships in All Flesh is Grass.  It’s about a failed real estate agent, Brad Carter, who lives in a small town, Millville,  that gets caught up in a mystery one day when he’s driving out of town and his car hits an invisible barrier.  Like The Visitors, All Flesh Is Grass is about a different kind of alien invasion, and if you look at the first two covers you will get hints as to what the invaders are like.  But they don’t invade Earth in spaceships.  Simak’s story feels more like one Ray Bradbury would have written in the 1950s, with a touch of Philip K. Dick.  It’s a kind of science fiction that has disappeared—as far as I know.

When I was growing up and reading science fiction in the 1960s as a teen, certain books had a quaintness to them.   Authors like E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Cummings wrote stories that seemed very old.  They wrote pulp stories from the 1930s.  Their style of writing, common phrases, wording, slang, etc. was just old enough to feel out-of-date old fashioned.  1965 Simak reads that way now.   Not like 1930s, because the story has a definite 1950s feel.  And the ending is painfully hokey.  Yet, All Flesh Is Grass was a pleasure to read, at least for me.  I’m just curious if anyone born after 1980 would find it fun.

Science fiction seems to change every decade like society.  Pop culture is always evolving and mutating.  Reading Simak’s science fiction feels so quaint, like looking at an Amish town, or characters out of a 1940s black and white movie.  But All Flesh is Grass is still about the awe of making first contact, still about encountering something that’s very alien.  Still imagining unimagined possibilities.  Simak’s mind goes way beyond little green men in flying saucers.

Ultimately, All Flesh is Grass is slight.  A 254 page paperback that was quickly written and quickly read.  That’s the problem with most science fiction, even today—it’s churned out.  King’s Under the Dome is 1088 pages.  Modern science fiction readers want long stories, either big books, or at least trilogies.  Today we remember authors by the series they write.  The novels I’ve been writing about as Forgotten Science Fiction were stand alone stories, that were short, quickly written for a few bucks.  They were consumed and forgotten.

Yet, I remember these old SF books from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and so do a few others, like my blogging friend Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  They are a unique art form.  The ones I like, and I think my friends at the book club like too, are the ones that use science fiction as a way to think about certain kinds of ideas.  The stories are more like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits than Star Wars or modern science fiction.  I have to admit they aren’t great literature, and maybe their appeal is only nostalgic, yet, they wonder about reality in the same way I did growing up.

JWH – 5/14/14

Michael Bishop

Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has asked several of his blogging friends to review the books of Michael Bishop.  Joachim explores the 1960s and 1970s looking for intellectual and philosophical science fiction books to review.  He especially loves their covers – that’s how I got hooked on his site – and collects them into visual themes.

Joachim invited me to contribute to his Michael Bishop reviews and I reviewed Brittle Innings, a rather strange novel about a 1943 minor league baseball team playing in rural Georgia one very hot summer.  The story is a lovely historical novel set during WWII, that shows a love of baseball, a literary feel for the south, and a fondness for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In Bishop’s literary fantasy, the monster lives and ends up as a big ugly slugger playing for the Highbridge Hellbenders as Hank “Jumbo” Clerval, but the story is really about a seventeen-year-old boy from Oklahoma, Danny “Dumbo” Boles, that gets a chance to play semi-pro ball because he’s too young for the draft.  Hank plays first base, and Danny plays short stop, and together they achieve minor fame as Dumbo and Jumbo.

Michael Bishop wrote over a dozen novels from 1975-1994 that got a good deal of attention in the science fiction and fantasy genre, including winning a Nebula for No Enemy But Time (1982) and a Locus Award for Brittle Innings (1994).  No Enemy But Time was chosen for the book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels by David Pringle.  It also made my Classics of Science Fiction list.

Joachim feels younger readers need to be introduced to Bishop’s work, and thus the series of guest reviews.  I’m very glad I read and reviewed Brittle Innings because it makes me want to go read more Michael Bishop.

no enemy but time

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Philip K. Dick is Dead

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JWH – 4/23/14