Death in Venice: The Aspern Papers

Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

Henry James and I have not gotten along in the past. When I was compelled to read The Turn of the Screw in school, I was completely befuddled. Then I heard from other readers that James’s writing was convoluted or impenetrable, and I wasn’t interested in trying to break through that tangle.

But I’ve been nagged by the need to give him another chance, and a novella seemed the best way to do so without a huge time commitment. The Aspern Papers is only 86 pages long, so how painful could it be?

Actually, not painful at all. This sample of the Master’s writing, at least, is quite lucid. Written in the first person, it tells the story of a man who is in pursuit of papers left behind by the poet he idolizes and studies, Jeffrey Aspern. He tracks them to Venice, to the house of the great man’s former mistress, now an impoverished old woman who lives alone with her niece. Under an assumed name (we never learn his real one), he becomes a lodger in the house and awaits his opportunity to worm out some information about the precious documents. However, complications arise through his growing intimacy with the isolated, attention-starved niece.

With echoes of Rappaccini’s Daughter and Sunset Boulevard, this subtle and quietly chilling character study explores how people can manipulate and hurt one another in manifold ways, not through evil intentions, but through thoughtlessness, ambition, pride, or unresolved suffering. None of the characters is sympathetic, but none can be seen as entirely damnable. The tension builds up gradually to a shocking conclusion worthy of a horror movie, while the setting of the crumbling, aged city with its ineffable beauty complements the human drama perfectly.

The Aspern Papers novella is based on a true story about the poet Shelley (see this post at Behold the Stars for more on that) but it’s not necessary to know that to enjoy it. I can’t say that I found this an entirely congenial read — it was too bleak — but I did find it haunting and well-crafted. Now I’d like to try one of James’s longer works, since the ice has been broken. Any suggestions?

Classics Club list #12
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Novella
Victorian Celebration 2015



Month in Review: June 2015


It feels like a lot happened this month! Along with a ton of fantastic reading, I made the big jump to self-hosted WordPress from Blogger. I still have a lot of things to figure out, but I’m getting there. I’m sad that I seem to have lost some Feedly and Blogger followers. I don’t have so many, but every one matters to me.

In real life, summer is really here. School is out, vacation from work starts in less than two weeks, and we’re headed to Switzerland. I have plenty of content scheduled but I might be slightly out of touch for a while, since I won’t always have Internet access. Please, comment away, and I’ll be sure to respond when I get back.


  • Good Daughters – My first book by Mary Hocking, which I hunted down for Heavenali’s event.
  • The Golem and the Jinni I enjoyed this fantasy about two very unusual immigrants to New York.
  • The Valley of Song – A nearly plotless paean to the divine creative power in the world, in the form of a children’s fantasy set in an 18th century shipbuilding town. By Elizabeth Goudge, of course.
  • Three childhood memoirs that share a Victorian connection: Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, Three Houses by Angela Thirkell, and My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt.
  • The Fellowship – An excellent new group biography of the Inklings (CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and co.)

Other features and events

Other books read

  • The Aspern Papers by Henry James – Back to the Classics Challenge (novella)
  • Seacrow Island and Mio, My Son by Astrid Lindgren – Review to come in Shiny New Books
  • The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton – Review to come
  • The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth – Blog tour and giveaway, July 3
  • The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff – Review to come
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – Back to the Classics Challenge (Twentieth century classic)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken – Reread
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik


Favorite posts from other bloggers


How was your month? What does summer hold in store for you?

Linked in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer

New Release Review: The Fellowship

Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015)


Love them or hate them — and there are large camps on both sides — it’s undeniable that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien have had a huge impact on the imaginative landscape of the last century. Where did their tales of planetary travel, magical wardrobes, sinister rings, and elves, dwarves and hobbits come from? What were the sources of their Christian faith, and how was it expressed in their fiction and nonfiction? What do they still have to say to us in today’s post-modern, highly secular world?

To understand the Tolkien/Lewis phenomenon, it’s vital to see them in their context of friends, fellow academics, and colleagues, particularly the circle known as The Inklings, a semi-informal writers’ group that saw the genesis of many of their most important works. Two lesser-known members of the group, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, played crucial roles in its development, and particularly influenced Lewis as intellectual foils and sparring partners. In The Fellowship, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski explore the extraordinary creative ferment of the Inklings with zest, lucidity, and intelligence.

The Zaleskis are clearly in the friendly camp, but avoid idolizing their subjects excessively, bringing in some of their less savory sides while ultimately refraining from passing judgment. (Lewis lived for many years with a married older woman; the angelic Williams had a taste for sadism.) They adroitly juggle the stories of the four men and their overlapping paths toward Oxford, painting a fascinating picture of the flowering of a literary circle within the turbulent years of a world at war. Even in a book whose main section exceeds 500 pages, it’s not possible to exhaustively cover each life; some personal details are glossed over, the emphasis being on their “literary lives” as the subtitle states. But in general a fine balance is struck between the private and public sides of the Inklings, and much light is shed on the sources and reverberations of their work.

For any avid reader of any of these four writers, this is an essential and highly enjoyable book. Even those who disdain Lewis’s popular Christian apologetics or Tolkien’s Hobbit epic may, the Zaleskis hope, “come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.” That’s my hope, too, and my reason for continuing to hold these four writers as touchstones for my literary life.


Author Guest Post: The Lover’s Path

Hard on the heels of the Dante-inspired In a Dark Wood, I had the opportunity to join in the blog tour for The Lover’s Path, which is spreading the word about new electronic editions of a beautiful “illustrated novella of Venice” by author-artist Kris Waldherr. This atmospheric story of forbidden romance is complemented by brief vignettes about lovers throughout history and legend, sensitively portrayed in rich, glowing images. Presented as if it were an artifact from the “Museo di Palazzo Filomela,” with attendant notes, maps, and museum information, it melds history and imagination in a way that will intrigue and delight lovers of Renaissance art and classical mythology.

The original print edition was a deluxe production with removable letters and other tactile features that greatly enhanced the reading experience; the e-book is available in several forms, including from PDF to Kindle to full-color interactive editions. I was curious about how the author found the process of transferring this unique content into a digital form, and pleased that she agreed to share her thoughts. It turns out that to create the e-book, she had to reimagine the whole project — and added much new and unique content in the process. Read on to learn more about her path of design discovery.


The Rebirth of The Lover’s Path by Kris Waldherr

printeditionloverspathOf all my books, The Lover’s Path is one of my favorites. It was also one of my most complex to write, design, and illustrate. The Lover’s Path took a full decade of work before it was finally published in 2005 by Abrams Books as a full color gift book. And now, another decade later, I’m delighted it is finally available as an e-book—a rebirth that almost didn’t happen.

Set in Renaissance Venice, The Lover’s Path was inspired by the true story of a courtesan named Tullia d’Aragona and her younger sister. It included illustrations, artifacts, and love myths from a faux museum called the Museo di Palazzo Filomela. The print book included letters, tarot cards, and other tactile elements. Though I’d obtained digital rights from the publisher in 2012, I couldn’t bring myself to begin work on it. It was too overwhelming. Another road block: the square dimensions of the print book didn’t translate well for e-readers, which are more horizontal of proportion. Was there any way I could make my book more beautiful, more emotionally satisfying, more interactive as an e-book? I couldn’t see how. No matter how exquisitely I designed the digital edition, it wouldn’t be the same.

loverspathdrawingI was about to consign The Lover’s Path to the halls of Beloved Books of Years Past. We’ll always have Venice, I told myself. Then I realized: the best way forward was a new way forward. This eureka moment gave me the creative freedom to treat the digital book as a separate entity from the print. So hooray!

Here’s how The Lover’s Path has been reborn for a new world: Not only does the digital edition sport a lovely new cover, the text has been expanded to flesh out the story. (The text in the original print edition was kept short because of cost—four color books are uber-expensive to produce.) I was also able to add new “artifacts” from the Museo di Palazzo Filomela in an expanded chapter. Coolest of all, the iPad edition even includes interactive graphics and maps.

As a result, I believe the e-book is a much richer, more immersive literary and artistic experience than the print edition, as lovely as it was. However, what pleases me most is that The Lover’s Path is now a living book, which can be updated at will. For example, I plan to record a sound walk in Venice this summer; this will find its way into future multimedia editions.

Now that the e-book edition of The Lover’s Path is here at last, I am so excited to share it with the world. And remember, to truly love another, you must walk along the lover’s path wherever it may lead you.


Kris Waldherr is the author and illustrator of The Lover’s Path: An Illustrated Novella of Venice, which is now available for the first time as an e-book. She is also the author of Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, The Book of Goddesses, and many other books and card decks. Learn more at



New Release Review: In a Dark Wood

Joseph Luzzi, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love (2015)

Midway through his life’s journey, Joseph Luzzi found himself in a forest of seemingly impenetrable darkness. His pregnant wife, Katherine, had died as the result of a car accident, shortly after delivering their daughter Isabel by emergency caesarean. Unprepared for sudden single fatherhood, Luzzi wrapped himself in grief and in his work as a professor of Italian at Bard College, largely leaving the raising of Isabel to his close-knit Calabrian family. But as he shuttled back and forth between Bard and the childhood home in Rhode Island that he thought he’d left behind for academia, he found that his lifelong study of Dante’s Divine Comedy was speaking to the most urgent questions of his life. Heeding its message, he struggled to lift himself out of hell and into a new understanding of the real meaning of love.

In this memoir of his years of struggling through darkness into the light, structured around the three parts of Dante’s masterpiece (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), Luzzi writes with honesty and hard-gained self knowledge. He takes us along on his journey from the self-absorption of hell, through the purgatory of learning to forgive and trust again, and into the acceptance of responsibility that is the gateway to heaven and the only sure foundation for healthy relationships. His style is simple and direct, never pretentious or preachy, and allows us to enter into his story as if hearing it from a close friend. Without attempting to approach the artistic summits of his literary guide, Luzzi adds a humble footnote to the truths of the great epic: yes, this is part of what it means to be human.

Luzzi doesn’t spend as much time on Dante as I expected, based on his title. He chooses a few key moments and characters that provided him with illumination, as well as some aspects of the poet’s life, but most of the narrative has to do with his own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Given that these do fall into the archetypal pattern of the Commedia, descending into the ultimate pit of suffering as a necessary step toward true integration, the connection is valid enough.

I feel that my own experience has been enlarged through Luzzi’s willingness to articulate both his suffering and his joy, and am grateful that he opened his heart to share these difficult lessons with us.

This is the final stop on the TLC Book Tour for In a Dark Wood. Click on the link for more information on the tour.


In the Shadow of Victoria: Three Childhood Memoirs

Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (1952)

Angela Thirkell, Three Houses (1931)

Diana Holman-Hunt, My Grandmothers and I (1960)


What do these three authors have in common? As well as being distinguished writers, artists and critics in their own right, they share the distinction of having famous Victorian grandfathers: Charles Darwin, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Holman-Hunt, respectively.  Their memoirs of childhood give us wonderful insights into the family lives of these great men and into the domestic details of a whole era, pictured even as it’s vanishing into the modern world that we ourselves inherited from their descendants.

Title page illustration

Period Piece is the most delightful of the three, funny and sharply observed. Though Charles Darwin died before his granddaughter Gwen was born in 1885, he left a large and eccentric family behind, who provide many entertaining moments with their fads and hypochondria, as well as halcyon times at their beloved Down House (which you can visit today). Thematic chapters with titles such as “Education,” “Propriety,” “Ghosts and Horrors,” “Religion” and “Society” affectionately poke fun at the habits of our ancestors. The line drawings by Raverat herself, who became a master wood engraver, add considerably to the humor. This is a lovely book to curl up with on a rainy day or whenever you need cheering up. It’s also a priceless window into a byegone age, by an artist with a very observant eye.

Burne-Jones with his granddaughter Angela

Novelist Angela Thirkell, born in 1890, did have a few years with her grandfather, the artist Edward Burne-Jones, before his death, and her account of him in Three Houses is warm and loving. Its three sections are arranged according to the three houses of her early life, and by far the longest section is devoted to the Burne-Jones holiday retreat near Brighton, where the few weeks she spent each summer made a disproportionate impression. The brief and gently episodic narrative has many wonderful details that bring the great artist to life, such as when he is so rent by the sight of Angela with her face to the wall, “expiating some sin,” that the next day he takes his paint box and paints her “a cat, a kitten playing with its mother’s tail, and a flight of birds, so that I might never be unhappy or without company in my corner again.” Another famous relative and neighbor is Rudyard Kipling, her cousin, whom she heard tell his Just So Stories: “a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice.”

Holman-Hunt’s “The Father’s Leavetaking”

In My Grandmothers and I, writer and art critic Diana Holman-Hunt provides an acerbic contrast to these nostalgic reminiscences, as her own childhood was not so rosy. Shuttled from the house of one grandmother to the other, “like a parcel” as she says herself, she lives in a strange world of alternating luxury and neglect. Though her grandfather, painter William Holman-Hunt, is dead, his widow (known as Grand) keeps his legacy fiercely alive, while paying little attention to the needs of the living girl in her house. Her obsession gives rise to tragicomic scenes, such as Grand hectoring tourists who are trying to look at “The Light of the World” in St. Paul’s, and a tea party where each cup is factitiously labeled with a famous visitor’s name (Rossetti, Millais, and so on). Born on the eve of the Great War and well out of the Victorian age, Diana tells her discomforting story with a sharper humorous edge that keeps the reader at a distance. When there’s laughter here, it’s very close to despair.

Period Piece and My Grandmothers and I were recently reprinted by the marvelous Slightly Foxed Editions. The hardcover editions are unfortunately sold out, but paperbacks may be available. Three Houses is newly available from Allison and Busby. For anyone with an interest in the period, its art, and its people, all three are a must.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Nonfiction

Once Upon a Time: The Valley of Song

Elizabeth Goudge, The Valley of Song (1951)

Many classic children’s fantasies involve finding a hidden country through a secret door, a theme that is connected with the mysterious land we enter during sleep, before birth and after death. From Wonderland to the country at the back of the North Wind to Oz to Narnia, these realms have captured readers’ hearts and imaginations in our modern, secularized age. They provide a method of transcending the barriers of formalized religion by exploring archetypal and mythic experiences in a fresh and individual way.

In The Valley of Song, the discovery and exploration of such a country is almost the sole subject of the book. Ten-year-old Tabitha, one of Goudge’s characteristically naughty but loveable child characters, has found the way into a wonderful land she calls the Valley of Song. When she brings some of her favorite adults in as well, she learns more about its nature and purpose, as the “Workshop” of the earthly kingdom and the gateway to the heavenly kingdom beyond.

Although there’s a thin thread of plot to carry the narrative — a quest to build “the most beautiful ship ever made,” using materials from the magical Valley — there’s little tension or conflict, and certainly no tremendous battles against the externalized forces of evil. Tabitha experiences some mild discomfort and one struggle to conquer her own self-interest, but mainly she journeys from wonder to wonder, rejoicing along with the creatures of the Valley at the beauty and goodness that flow from their Creator, and feeling the blessing of the Great Ones who watch over human lives.

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks

If this makes it sound like a religious book, it is — but without being the least bit narrow or dogmatic. It bears a strong resemblance to the works of George MacDonald, which come out of a similar impulse to express the inexpressible through numinous images. Goudge’s writing in this particular book is not strong enough to reach the poetic quality of her great predecessor; too many things are merely labeled as “beautiful” or “lovely” or “wonderful,” weak adjectives that take away from our sense of actually beholding what she’s trying to describe. As an adult reader I also found some passages almost too whimsical, though Goudge is guiltless of the twee insincerity that makes such writing truly unbearable.

Instead, her gift of touching fictional people and places with reality serves to make us care about the little shipbuilding town from a bygone day, and the myriad characters, young and old, human and animal, who inhabit it. There are also passages of grandeur and true beauty, and suffusing the whole book is the power of love, love for the earth and for all that dwell therein, and for the Lord of Life, whose work we participate in when we ourselves are creative.

In her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, Goudge herself identified this as one of the three of her own books that she truly loved, and having read it I now understand why. Into it she poured all the longings of her heart — for redemption, harmony, and participation in that joyful song that underlies all being. Readers of any age who share this longing will find delight in visiting the Valley of Song.

I’m counting The Valley of Song for the Fantasy category of the Once Upon a Time Challenge, Quest the Second.


Once Upon a Time: The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (2013)


The Golem and the Jinni has an interesting origin story: author Helene Wecker was trying to write fiction dealing with her own Jewish heritage and that of her husband, who is of Arab descent, and finding it dead in the water. A friend said, “Helene, why are you writing like this?” She realized that she wasn’t activating her “geek” side that loved science fiction and fantasy. When she made her main characters a golem (in Jewish legend, inanimate matter mystically brought to life in the semblance of a human being) and a jinni (a fiery spirit from Arab folklore), the story took off.

And to our benefit, for this is a delightfully entertaining and thought-provoking book, embracing the cultural ferment of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century from a wholly original point of view. The golem and the jinni are immigrants: one arrives on a boat bereft of the master who has just awakened her and then suddenly died, while the other is accidentally set free from centuries of imprisonment by a tinsmith who tries to repair a flask from the old country. They must negotiate unexpected lives in this new, bewildering place, trying to find a way to survive and be themselves in a world that doesn’t even admit that they can exist. Meanwhile, the forces that would rob them again of their newfound self-determination are closing in.

Though the two characters are very different — from the very elements of their being, earth and fire, to their moral outlook on the world — how they draw near to one another and form a kind of sympathetic alliance in their strange quest is a story both touching and thrilling. This is not a lead-footed allegory of the immigrant experience, but an imaginative leap into the questions that make fiction both fun and meaningful. Can free will be manufactured, or earned? Is love a phenomenon of feeling, or of action? What does one do if one literally cannot sleep? Through a wide array of characters and incidents, brought into play with impressive skill for a first-time novelist, Wecker gives the ring of truth to her fantastic story.

I’m counting The Golem and the Jinni for the “Folklore” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.


Remembering Mary Hocking: Good Daughters

Mary Hocking, Good Daughters (1985)


I love being introduced to new-to-me authors, so when Heavenali announced she was hosting a “Remember Mary Hocking” event, I was glad to join in. I decided to start my exploration of this prolific twentieth-century British novelist with Good Daughters, the first in a trilogy about the Fairley family. The three daughters of the title fall into a common literary (or mythic) pattern: there’s the oldest girl on the cusp of womanhood, the youngest still in childhood, and the middle daughter between the two, uneasily edging into the adult world. Although we move between their perspectives, and even get a glimpse at the inner lives of other characters from time to time, it’s the middle child, Alice, who is really the center of the novel. Little information is available about Hocking’s life, but from what there is I suspect that Alice is something of a self-portrait, and the story drawn from at least some autobiographical elements. The time is the mid-1930s, the place Shepherd’s Bush in London, where the girls’ idealistic but somewhat obtuse Methodist father teaches in a boys’ school. His strict rules of conduct and the needs and wishes of the growing girls clash at times, as when oldest sister Louise wants to take part in a community theater production. Meanwhile, through the lives of friends and neighbors Alice is exposed to secrets and intrigues that don’t fit into the morals of her sheltered life. It’s all part of growing up in a rapidly changing world, and Hocking paints this family portrait with a good deal of skill, capturing the painful, exciting, messy process of discovering oneself in relation to other people.

Yet the very fact of appreciating the small, intimate joys of family life, of luxuriating in the slow passage of the lengthening days, seemed to cut Alice off from Claire. Claire, whether lying in the hammock reading, or playing with Badger on the lawn, lived completely in the golden hours as though evening would never come, and Alice was aware of something she had lost. She was also aware of Louise moving away from them all.

After so much time spent getting to know these characters in detail, when events unraveled rather hastily at the end I felt somewhat let down. I’m curious to know how their story continues, though, and I’m sure I will look into the sequels (Indifferent Heroes and Welcome Strangers) at some point. These carry the Fairleys through the war years, and I wonder how they will deal with the upheavals to come. Thanks to Heavenali for introducing me to an unfamiliar author who was worth the effort to track down. I’m excited to see what discoveries other readers have made this week.


How do you find “under-the-radar” books?

A while ago, a couple of book podcasts that I listen to both featured this question. Readers are frustrated that everywhere they turn, the same books are being promoted. It’s hard to get beyond the hype of the season’s “hot reads” and find other books that may be equally good, but just haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. How do you find these lesser-known gems?

I think this is a great question. I’m not sure about how to find up-to-the-moment reads that have been unjustly passed over; it seems a bit easier after some years or even decades have passed (although that does not help the starving author much). Here are a few of my ideas, at any rate.

I’ve found some wonderful books and authors that I had never heard of before solely because they were championed by bloggers — one recent example being the fiction of Margery Sharp which got a day of celebration at Fleur in Her World. The Century of Reading project that many bloggers are participating in has also turned up some very interesting finds. And right now a “Remember Mary Hocking” event is going on at Heavenali.

Award Lists
Not necessarily the major ones (Booker, Pulitzer) but some of the more obscure lists that have a specialist focus. Through the blog She Reads Novels, for example, I learned of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction which seems to have some fascinating lesser-known titles on its list along with the big names. Then there’s the Phoenix Award, which goes to a children’s book published twenty years earlier that didn’t win a major award at the time. And I just learned about Fiction Uncovered, a British award with the avowed purpose of “uncovering” outstanding works of fiction.

I love books that are basically book lists. Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series has dozens of suggestions from a master librarian, and I also recommend A Reader’s Delight and A Child’s Delight by Noel Perrin. These originated in a column that Perrin wrote featuring forgotten or neglected books that he particularly loved, and I was sorry when he ran out of suggestions.

Do you know of particular blogs, award lists, books, or other sources that point you to “under-the-radar” books?

Posted for the 2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge, hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight.