Monday, May 18, 2015

Houses of Stone

Houses of Stone
by Barbara Michaels

It is a find of inestimable value for Karen Holloway. The battered manuscript she holds in her hand—written in the nineteenth century and bearing the mysterious attribution "Ismene"—could prove a boon to the eager young English professor's career. But Karen's search for the author's true identity is carrying her into the gray shadows of the past, to places fraught with danger and terror. For the deeper she delves into Ismene's strange tale of gothic horror, the more she is haunted by the suspicion that the long-dead author was writing the truth . . . and that even now she is guiding Karen's investigation, leading her to terrible secrets hidden behind the cold walls of houses of stone.

My Reaction:
As a fan of modern gothic fiction-- and Jane Eyre-- I was intrigued by this novel's premise, however the reading experience was not one of unalloyed pleasure.

My patience was tested by the protagonist's unhealthy obsession with feminism, and I could've done with a little more interaction between the annoying "heroine" and the two potential suitors.  If there's a romantic element in a book, the author should really take the time to include some romance.  (Seriously.  So tired of books that skimp on the romance, then expect me to swoon when two characters who have barely conversed during the bulk of the book are suddenly "Ohmygosh, So In Love" on the last few pages.)

That said, I wanted to know how it would all come out-- Ismene's identity, the denouement of the manuscript, and which "lucky" guy Karen would choose.  Though Karen and Peggy's scattershot method of investigation was a bit mind-numbing at times (so much looking, so little finding), the story kept me entertained.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  "The other booksellers with whom she dealt were not given to joking about their profession-- as one of them gloomily put it, peddling the printed word to a nation of semiliterates was no laughing matter..."

Hm.  Sure, it would be great if more people saw the value of reading and enjoyed it, but I wonder at what point in history and in what country a bookseller would find a significantly more literate populace.  Maybe movies, TV, video games, and the Internet have pulled away some of the potential audience, but everyone in the modern US has the opportunity to learn to read (and very few lack the leisure time to do so, if reading is prioritized). 

--  "Simon considered Mozart the greatest composer who had ever lived, with John Lennon a close second."  Oh, gag.  I actually like Simon, but this?  *eyeroll*  Gee, Simon is super cool-- for an old dude!

--  Each chapter begins with an epigraph on the subject of women writers/women's place in literature.  There are two or three eyebrow-raising ones from Nathaniel Hawthorne, including this snippet he wrote in a letter to his publisher, in 1852:  "All women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome.  I wish they were forbidden to write, on pain of having their faces deeply scarified with an oyster shell."

...O-kay... I don't know much about Hawthorne, beyond a couple of readings of The Scarlet Letter.  Apparently he wrote the infamous letter to his publisher in a fit of pique, frustrated by the competition of successful women writers, most of whom he found lacking in strength of authorial voice.  ...I have to say, that bit about the oyster shell is disturbing and doesn't entice me to read more of Hawthorne's work.

--  At some point, I started highlighting all the overt references to feminism and male chauvinism, because there are just so darned many of them in this book.  That is not a good thing, in my opinion.  Newsflash: I'm reading this book for entertainment, not for a lecture on how put-upon poor women writers are-- especially not an extended lecture.  If you have to address it, get it out there and be done with it; don't drag it out over the course of the whole book.  Unfortunately, it is the book-- or one of its threads/thematic elements, at least.

--  I'm stunned to learn that this novel was published in 1993, because the repeated use of the term "male chauvinist" (or "male chauvinism") feels so very dated to me.  I would've sworn this book was from sometime in the late-70s to mid-80s.  When was the last time you heard someone use it?

--  I'm serious.  Male chauvinist this.  Feminist that.  All.  Through.  The.  Book.  It's enough to make you scream.  Hurry!  Don't let a man open the door for you!  Whew.  Just in the nick of time.  You really showed him who's boss.  *eyeroll*  Also, all men want to keep women down in their places at the bottom of the pile.  Every single last one of them has an evil, innate wish to keep all the power and glory for themselves.  Even the supposedly good guys can't be completely trusted to respect a woman's intelligence and ability to fend for herself.  Stay vigilant, my fellow women!

--  "She got out of the car before Hayes could open the door for her.  He stepped back with a faint smile and a slight shrug and she knew he was thinking, 'Another of those damned feminists.'"
--  "Karen reached for the gate.  His hand was there before hers; she let him open it for her."
--  "She let him open the car door too.  When in Rome..."
(Maybe it's time to get a new hobby, Karen.  Your obsession with doors/gates and who opens them is kind of sad.)

--  Guess what, you guys!  Genealogy is also sexist, "since (of course, Karen thought sourly) descent [is] traced through the male".  "Was that information missing from the genealogy because it had not been available to the researcher, or because nobody gave a damn about females outside the direct line of descent?"  Good grief.  Is there any area of life that is satisfactory for this kind of person, or is everything cause for bitterness and discontent?

--  And then, in the midst of the feminism deluge, there comes a sunny ray of humor.  "'The girls are orphans.  Their father has recently died and they have been sent to live with their uncle, their only living relative.  They've never met him.  He and Daddy parted company years before, after a violent quarrel the cause of which has not yet been made clear.'  Peggy's brow wrinkled.  'I read a book like that once.  Forget the title; something about wolves.'  'It's a variation of one of the three original Gothic plots,' Karen said impatiently."

...Am I crazy, or is that a sly reference to one of Barbara Michaels' own previous publications-- Sons of the Wolf?  From what I remember of the plot, it certainly fits...   Now this is something I can appreciate! 

-- Speaking of references, when reading a Barbara Michaels book, I always make a point of playing "Spot the Egyptologist's Easter Egg".  So far, I think I've always found at least one reference to mummies, tombs, scarabs, hieroglyphics-- something.  In this novel, however, either there was no reference, or I completely missed it.  I'm strangely disappointed. 

-- There's a lot of smoking-- especially now that I know this was set in the 90s.   And drinking, of course, but that's not uncommon in even the most modern novels.  It does make me wonder how unique I am, though, as half of a non-drinking couple with no affiliation with a strict cult or something.  No, drinking alcohol isn't against our religious beliefs.  We just... choose not to drink.  We're weirdos who prefer to get our naughty calories in the form of junk food.  I feel like an anomaly, based on what you see in TV shows, movies, books... and online, where it sometimes feels that everyone equates a nice, relaxing evening with a glass of wine or a bottle of brew.  ~shrug~ 

--  "Before long the dangerous word 'herstory' had been mentioned..."  Ha ha ha.  I'm sorry, but I can't take "herstory" seriously.  It's just such a joke.

--  Peggy says: "Conventional history completely ignores half the human race.  What do you think women were doing while their men were shooting Indians and slaughtering animals and cutting down the forests-- embroidering doilies?"  Sheesh, Peggy!  From one woman to another, could you please take a breath and calm down?  It was a different time, and there are plenty of common men who didn't get to be in the spotlight, any more than their wives and daughters did.  That's just the way history is/was...  Also, what's wrong with embroidering doilies?  I mean, I prefer to crochet them, myself, but to each her own... ;o)

--  For two such enlightened women, Peggy and Karen don't always behave like good little feminists.  They gawk at Dorothea, and the subject of her manly size and "androgynous look" comes up repeatedly.  Shouldn't a true feminist be less judgmental of how another woman looks?

--  I don't like it when characters can't talk like real people-- that is, make grammatical errors-- without feeling the need to call torturous attention to it.  Example: "That's him!"  "Your grammar is deteriorating badly."

--  "The outline was that of a man, abnormally tall and thin.  Late-afternoon sunlight pouring through the window at the end of the hall framed his head in a golden halo, but his face was an oval of darkness."  This reminded me of Slenderman-- but that particular thread of the story fades early, never to return.

--  "An animal trail?  But surely deer wouldn't come so close to the house, not when they had acres of wilderness in which to roam."  ...You'd be surprised.

--  Karen at one point wears a sweatshirt with an illustration of Bill Clinton playing a saxophone.  Well, yuck.  As if I needed yet another reason to dislike her! 

--  Woo-hoo!  We found another source of feminist frustration!  "Hadn't she read somewhere that two [of the four elements] were considered masculine and the other two feminine?  Fire would be masculine, of course.  It was aggressive, active, destructive.  And by the standards of those super-male chauvinists, the Greek philosophers, earth could only be considered feminine-- passive, acted upon instead of active."

--  I know it's not actually pronounced this way, but every time I saw the name "Ismene", I kept hearing "EHZ-meh-nay"-- kind of like that ridiculous "Renesmee" from the Twilight series.

--  Peggy corrects Karen when the latter refers to Indians.  ("Native Americans, please.")  Yet, earlier in the book, Peggy herself calls them Indians, so... Hypocrite?

--  "Another (neurotic) habit of hers was to separate the canned goods: all the soups in one group, all the vegetables in another.  Now the mushroom soup rubbed shoulders with the canned peas and the chili was next to the tomato juice."  ...Neurotic?  That's just being organized!

--  Of course the stereotypical fat-bellied Southern "Colonel" refers to the Civil War as "The War of Southern Independence".  Because that was so common in the 1990s.  (No, that sort of crap just never gets old.)

--  Another sure sign of the Good Feminist: She expects women to care about clothes.  "'Cloaks and mantles and hoods and trailing skirts could apply to any time in the century.  You'd think a woman would describe clothes in more detail.'  'I hope you're not implying Ismene was a man.  That's the old male-chauvinist syllogism: Women's books have no literary merit; this book has literary merit; hence this book could not have been written by a woman.'"

--  "But the syllogism is hard to fight.  What the hell do you think feminist critics are complaining about?"  ...Well, based on much of this book, a whole lotta nothin'.  Look, I won't deny that there is sexism in the world-- and that there was more of it in the past-- but not everything is aimed at putting/keeping women in positions of weakness.  It seems that some people might be reading sexism into places where it really doesn't exist.

--  "Joan's red hair was windblown, and she was wearing a bright-green T-shirt covered with feminist mottoes and insignia. " (Of course she was.  Otherwise, she wouldn't be an acceptable friend and ally for our charming heroine.) "The least provocative of the mottoes read, 'A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle'." (That was old news even when this book was first published.  I've never understood why it caught on...)

--  Blah blah blah... (I'm editing my notes, because I'm getting feminism overload.)

--  Yes, Mrs. Fowler is obnoxious, but I totally get her frustration at having her flowers (which some gardeners work hard to grow) broken by the neighbor's cat.  Peggy: "It's hard to confine cats, Mrs. Fowler.  But it's a shame about your pretty flowers."  ...What a lazy excuse!  The author's love of cats comes through loud and clear.

--  After her scandalous lecture at the meeting of the literary club, Karen suffers pangs of remorse:  "It isn't what I said that bothers me-- it's the way I said it.  Not only was it counterproductive, it was rude!  Those poor stupid pompous people can't help being the way they are.  They were trying to be nice to me.  And what gives me the right to assume they are all stupid and pompous?  Am I turning into a damned intellectual snob?"  Turning into an intellectual snob?  Oh, no, honey; I think you've been one for quite some time.

--  Despite her snobbery, Karen isn't such hot stuff, herself!  When Peggy and Karen discuss the manuscript, Karen seems to be less skilled at predicting characters' actions and decoding their motives than historian Peggy.  If Karen's career (and passion in life) is literature, shouldn't she be better at that sort of thing?

"'You really are jumping to conclusions.'  'I'm making educated guesses,' Peggy corrected. 'That's part of the fun of reading mysteries-- trying to figure out the solution.  Ismene has set up the plot, and unless she cheats by introducing a new character or a vital clue at the last minute, an intelligent reader ought to be able to predict what will happen.'"

-- There is not enough Cameron in this book.  I would've loved to have read more conversations and interactions between Karen and Cameron-- preferably something a little less antagonistic than most of what's already there.  Cameron is somehow likeable, even though we know precious little about him.  However, I'm not sure what he sees in Karen.  Must be mostly a physical attraction, because they hardly speak (or even see one another) for most of the book-- and then all of a sudden, they're in a steady relationship! 

--  That said, I was pleased that Cameron "won".  I was afraid Bill (or whatever his name was) would be the hero, and he and Karen would make such a boring couple, imho.  ...Anyway, it's nice when the right guy turns out to be the hero, even if the romantic element as a whole was lacking.