Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition by Amity Shlaes & Paul Rivoche

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and some changes will occur in the final edition (due out around May 2014.)

The Forgotten Man

This is a “graphic novel” version of the revisionist history book by Amity Shlaes in which she argues that the New Deal policies tended to prolong the Great Depression.  For this version, the story is told through the narration of Wendell Willkie, an electric utility executive that ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

The black and white Rivoche art serves the subject well, although casting FDR’s face in shadow much of the time is an artistic choice that is perhaps a bit too obvious in its intentions.

The general notion is that government intervention in the economy was (and is) a bad thing, and that self-starting individuals such as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous could have brought the country out of its slump much earlier.  It also tries to link several of the important figures in the Roosevelt Administration to Communism, a frequent bugaboo of neoconservatives.

That said, there were many missteps in the great experiment of the New Deal, and several of them get a mention here.  Some of them don’t come across quite as the author intended, I think, looking more like the result of bad individual decisions than bad government policy.

There are some really good bits in here, such as the running gag of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon not talking.

The back has a (possibly misleading) timeline and economic chart, followed by a listing of the cast of characters.  The potted biographies carefully cut off as of 1940, which means that you will need to do your own research on such figures as Ayn Rand to see where they actually ended up.

As noted in the disclaimer, this is an uncorrected proof, and some dialogue balloons have missing words or badly constructed sentences, making them make little sense,  which will presumably be fixed in the finished product.

Fans of the original book should find this one interesting, as well as history buffs who enjoy graphic novels.  Those of you who are not familiar with economics may want to brush up a bit to more fully understand the positions being argued here.  In honesty, I’m recommending this one more for the art than the writing.

Comic Book Tribute: 2000 AD

Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of 2000 AD, a weekly British science fiction comic paper.

2000 AD

Back in the 1970s, the British comics market was doing quite well.  There were many weekly papers, divided into children’s, boys’ and girls’ categories.  Some then divided down into genres, such as comedy, war or sports.  A science fiction movie fad convinced an editor at IPC that an SF-themed weekly comic for boys would sell well.

Given the vagaries of the British comics industry, which had titles failing all the time to be incorporated into more popular weeklies, the new book was named 2000 AD as there was little chance of it reaching that far future date.  Previous experience had taught the team of Pat Mills and John Wagner that teens responded well to anti-authoritarian attitudes and authoritarian characters, even though their parents and the moral guardians deplored the former.

In keeping with the science fiction/future theme, the issues were called “progs” and the ostensible editor of the magazine, Tharg, was an alien from Betelgeuse who employed robots to write and draw the stories.   The first prog led off with a revamped version of the classic Dan Dare series, plus M.A.C.H.-1 (a super-powered secret agent with a computer in his head that regulated his powers and sometimes took control),  Flesh (time traveling cowboys herding dinosaurs), Invasion 1999 (Communazi invaders called Volgans take over Britain) and Harlem Heroes (an all-black team playing the futuristic sport of jetball.)

That last one was unusual for having black leads at a time when most comics shied away from them; it was later explained as not being a deliberately progressive choice so much as really being fans of the Harlem Globetrotters.

But what really set 2000 AD apart was a strip that didn’t start until the second issue due to needing more pre-production tweaking, Judge Dredd.  This futuristic Dirty Harry with an element of black comedy quickly became the flagship character of the book, appearing in nearly every issue.

The comics tended to be quite violent, and this has continued for the most part to the present day.  As it was a boys’ paper female characters were rare and marginalized in the early days.  Once female readers, bored by the rather soppy girls’ comics of the time, started coming in, this caused a running feud in the letters page with many male fans complaining that girls were invading their special space.

Things have gotten better on the sexism front since, although traces of laddishness still crop up in the current stories.  Due to the different censorship laws in Britain, female toplessness does happen from time to time–parents be advised.

Many now-famous British writers and artists got their first big break from 2000 AD, including Brian Bolland and Alan Moore.  There’s plenty of great art and snappy writing to be found in the various stories, along with some clinkers.

Despite some rough times, especially in the late 1990s, 2000 AD has managed to survive the collapse of the British comics industry and continues to publish weekly.  May they have many zarjaz years to come!

Book Review: In the Wet

Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute

This is rather an odd book by the author of On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.  It starts as the story of Roger Hargreaves, an aging Anglican priest in Northern Australia in the 1950s.  In the course of his parish duties,  Father Hargreaves meets a colorful local character, an old drunk named Frankie.   Frankie may have some sort of precognitive abilities, or maybe he just got a lucky guess.  Still, there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye.

In the Wet

During the rainy season, (as the locals call it, “in the wet”,) Hargreaves receives word that Frankie is dying.  Along with a local medical woman, he hurries to the remote cabin Frankie is staying in.   They lose their medical supplies in the floods, and the lamp fuel is almost gone.  There’s not much to be done for Frankie but allow him to smoke opium to dull the pain.   To distract Frankie, Hargreaves asks the dying man to tell the priest about himself.

But the story Frankie tells is of Wing Commander David Anderson, an Australian test pilot who is asked to become a member of the Queen’s Flight (kind of like Air Force One for us Yanks.)  As the story continues, it becomes clear that Anderson lives in the 1980s, a time of crisis for the Commonwealth.

After this paragraph, I’ll be going into SPOILER territory, and also some racially charged language.  For those who don’t want to see that, I’ll say that this is an interesting book, but On the Beach was better.  Some very nice sketches of North Australian life in the 1950s at the beginning and end, though, and the aviation scenes are excellent.

SPOILER WARNING

1980s Britain is not, in many ways, like the one in our timeline.   For starters, there’s still food rationing.   Rosemary Long, our hero’s love interest, has a good job at Buckingham Palace and can afford her own good sized sailboat, but has never seen an intact pineapple before, let alone had enough meat to worry that it might spoil.  (In real life,  rationing officially ended in 1954, with many items being derationed well before that.

Also, Britain is largely Socialist, with Labour having been in power almost uninterrupted for the last thirty years.  (Evidently, Mr. Shute did not have confidence in Winston Churchill’s ability to hold onto the Prime Minister job.  In real life, he was able to swing the voting to the Conservative party for quite some time.)  This has resulted in the Prime Minister, Iorweth Jones being a barely disguised Communist, (Communism having gone out of favor after “the Russian war”) with a class warfare mentality.  Also, the Secretary of State for Air is so out of touch with the state of aeroplane technology that he is unaware planes have things called “radios” now.

One thing Mr. Shute did get right was that Queen Elizabeth II is still on the throne, with Charles as the Prince of Wales.  Charles is married and has two sons.  Well, he does on page 111.   A daughter pops up as well on page 181.

We don’t get much information about the Russian war; it was a few years ago, Commander Anderson spent most of it in the Philippines, it evidently did not go nuclear, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union.  As mentioned above, the end of the war discredited Communism as a viable government style.

Britain is also undergoing a population crash, due to heavy emigration (in our timeline they mostly had immigration from the former colonies and Commonwealth.)   Things have gotten bad enough that the government nationalized housing after the 1970 crash and hasn’t given it back since.  Rosemary has never seen a new house being built, to her memory.

Meanwhile, Australia’s been doing great, thanks to the new multiple vote system.   Every adult gets one basic vote.  if you get higher education, you get a second vote (Anderson got his for officer school.)  Working outside the country for two years gets you the foreign travel vote (Anderson admits this is pretty much a racket so military veterans get an extra say.)  Getting married, staying married and spawning two children who you raise to at least fourteen gets you a family vote.  (Divorce, widowry or your kids dying or disappearing means starting all over.)

There’s also a business vote for anyone with an earned income over a certain amount (and it’s substantially high) and a religious vote for anyone holding an office in an approved Christian church.  That last one would never fly in America!  Finally, there’s the Queen’s Favour vote which you get in much the same way you would a knighthood.  Thus a truly dedicated person can have up to seven votes; somehow this has led to Australia getting a better class of politicians.

By the end of the book, England is looking to install the same voting system.  Notably, England had had a similar thing called plural voting up until 1948 in real life, when it was reformed for a one person one vote system.  Instead of multiple voting, real life Australia went with “preference voting” instead, where you rank candidates in order of how much you like them.

In other political oddness, the Queen seems much more involved with ruling the Commonwealth than the largely figurehead role she had in the real 1980s.  She even moves the Royals to Australia, and appoints a Governor General for England as it’s clear Parliament can’t handle the job.

Oh, and what will be truly horrific to some of you, rock and roll never caught on, and ballroom dancing with live orchestras is still the thing.

And then there’s the racism weirdness.  Mr. Shute was against racism, especially Southern United States style racism, but it’s expressed oddly here.  Commander Anderson is mixed race, being one-quarter Aborigine, and apparently is light-skinned and fine-featured enough that most people assume he just has a tan.  He goes by the nickname “Nigger,” and insists all his friends call him that.

You can sort of see that, as a way of “reclaiming the word” and apparently Commander Anderson’s worried that people will think he’s trying to “pass” if he doesn’t bring up his ancestry directly.  But it’s still very jarring.  Especially when he uses the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” unironically.  It’s clear that most of the characters consider his deeds more important than his ethnicity, and indeed, he’s the only one to ever bring it up.

The sections set in the 1950s have more obvious casual racism.  There’s a bit of author blindness to sexism; the Queen rules but all the other speaking women in the 1980s are secretaries, telephone girls,  stewardesses and maids.  Rosemary majored in history and paid special attention to the suffragette movement, but otherwise seems content with a 1950s style romantic relationship.

If you’ve read the book and have some comments, by all means let me know.

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E Hoskins

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Stitched Up

Fashion…isn’t something I notice a lot.  I buy clothes when I have to, and try to wear matching socks, but I don’t know a lot about fashion as a subject.  This book may or may not have helped with that.

Early on, Ms. Hoskins defines fashion as “changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by groups of people” so that she can talk about the entire clothing and accessories industry, as opposed to just haute couture.  She chooses to view the industry through an “anti-capitalist” lens, which yes, does take its roots from Marxism.

The book primarily deals with the modern fashion industry, from the Industrial Revolution on, and doesn’t dwell too much on the early history.  The first few chapters provide an overview of the industry, from the wealthy owners through the fashion press to the exploited factory workers.  It should be noted here that this is a British book, and this influences the examples given.

Then there is a section about the many problematic issues involving fashion, such as environmental damage,  body image and racism.  (The recent film biography of Coco Chanel cut off before World War Two for a reason.)  There’s  a fair bit in here that I already knew, but I had no idea of just how bad it actually was.

The final chapters of the book deal with ways in which people are resisting, and trying to reform fashion, but Ms. Hoskins believes that all the problems with the fashion industry are at their roots caused by capitalism.  Therefore, revolution to smash capitalism is the only true solution.

The last chapter goes into some detail of what post-capitalist fashion might involve.  The author points out the (sadly short-lived) blossoming of the arts and textile design in the post-revolution Soviet Union.  However, the cautionary tale of Cultural Revolution China is also mentioned, where a simple outlawing of “reactionary” fashion led to nationwide conformity because the Mao suit was the only thing everyone could agree was not reactionary, and therefore safe to wear.

Ms. Hoskins is thinking that revolution should instead lead to more of a democratic socialism…or something.  Anyway, smash capitalism, and everything else should work out okay.

The striking illustrations are by Jade Pilgrom.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.

I’d recommend this book to students of fashion, budding Socialists and people who have always wondered what the big deal is with fashion, anyway.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...