Lament for a Maker

lament for a makerI’ve been reading Michael Innes’s mysteries in order, and this is his third. The others have been enjoyable, if somewhat academic detective stories, starring a young John Appleby, and I was looking forward to this one. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the whiplash-inducing structure, peculiar style, and lunatic resolution I found in Lament for a Maker.

Ranald Guthrie, laird of the extremely gloomy castle of Erchany, has two main characteristics: his extreme miserliness, and his fear of death. As he walks through the rat-infested halls of Erchany, he chants the strains of William Dunbar’s medieval dirge — Timor mortis conturbat me — and most of the nearby town of Kinkeig thinks he’s mad. (With reason, you have to admit.) He’s attended by the still more unpleasant Hardcastle couple, and by a “daftie,” Tammas. Two unexpected guests are stranded at Erchany on Christmas Eve (one of whom just happens to be Guthrie’s American heir) only to witness Guthrie’s fall from the top tower in the middle of the night. Was it suicide, accident, or murder?

The structure, to begin with, is reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. There are five narrators, each with a distinct voice, and each offers an opinion on the death of Ranald Guthrie. Innes makes each solution seem quite complete and convincing, until (UNTIL) we receive different information with the next narrator’s account. The first narrator, a cobbler, writes in Scots dialect:

 Full of criminal law was old Speirs ever since he started stocking Edgar Wallace for Dr. Jervie’s loons, and would air his views every night at the Arms, with a pack of gaupit bothie billies listening to his stite as if it were the wisdom of Solomon.

The second narrator writes in full-fledged Mitfordese, the third in Pompous Lawyer. The fourth is John Appleby himself, and the fifth… well, the fifth would be telling.

I wouldn’t be complaining about this, ordinarily. In fact, it’s kind of fun (except that it took me quite a long time to get past the Scots.) But Innes piles on one plot development after another as well, and eventually, about two-thirds of the way into the book, I was rolling my eyes rather than turning pages with eagerness. This book is so very ornate that it becomes the Dance of the Seven Veils rather than a nice, cleanly-plotted mystery with some sense of character. One of the key pieces of information is actually delivered by a rat dragging it into the room and then dying. Really? Really? And when the final solution to the mystery does appear, it’s so over-the-top that it eclipses even that little bit of the surreal.

Still, I plan to read more of Innes’s mysteries. You have to admire someone who goes all-out crazy in his third book. Maybe in the next Appleby mystery, there’ll be time-travel, or a descendant of Attila the Hun, or a character with an evil spider monkey for a pet. After this, I can’t predict with any certainty, and that’s not something I often run into with mysteries!

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

A City of Bells

city of bellsJocelyn Irvin has just come out of the Boer War with “an incurably lamed leg and a future that consisted of nothing but an immense question mark.” Restless and ill-tempered, he goes to the one place he believes he can find peace: the ageless cathedral city of Torminster, where his adored grandfather has served as canon for many years. Here, he finds the rest of the family, which consists of his acerbic grandmother, and the two children they’re caring for in their old age: Hugh Anthony and Henrietta.

Torminster is a town straight out of Trollope, where the Dean of the Cathedral is the reigning monarch, and gossip causes things to happen faster than any other motivating force. When Mary and Martha, who run the sweet-shop, cause it to be known that Canon Irvin’s grandson has come to Torminster to set up a bookshop, it’s irresistible, whether Jocelyn wants to do it or not. And so he steps into the little house recently abandoned by Gabriel Ferranti, the poet who used to live there and talk to Henrietta about beauty and eternity, and he sets up a bookshop for Torminster.

But Ferranti, his disappearance and his suffering, are a bigger mystery than it seems at first sight. And that mystery, too, is irresistible, because in Grandfather’s care no one can be lost without sorrow. Jocelyn doesn’t find the peace he is looking for, but he finds work, and love, and responsibility, and care, and those lead to a sort of peace in the end.

I have mentioned in my last few posts that I’ve read several books in a row that deal with books and immortality. This was by far my favorite of them, just as Elizabeth Goudge is one of my very favorite authors. (I think she is under-rated and under-read, marked as a “chocolate-box” author and thought simple-minded because she often has happy endings. Nonsense.) This is what Grandfather has to say on the topic:

In my experience when people begin to read they go on. They begin because they think they ought to and they go on because they must. Yes. They find it widens life. We’re all greedy for life, you know, and our short span of existence can’t give us all that we hunger for, the time is too short and our capacity not large enough. But in books we experience all life vicariously.

And again:

“A bookseller,” said Grandfather, “is the link between mind and mind, the feeder of the hungry, very often the binder up of wounds. There he sits, your bookseller, surrounded by a thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts and conditions. And there come into him other minds, hungry for beauty, for knowledge, for truth, for love, and to the best of his ability he satisfies them all… Yes… It’s a great vocation.”

“Greater than a writer’s?” asked Felicity….

“Immeasurably,” said Grandfather. “A writer has to spin his work out of himself and the effect upon the character is often disastrous. It inflates the ego. Now your bookseller sinks his own ego in the thousand different egos that he introduces to each other… Yes… Moreover his life is one of wide horizons. He deals in the stuff of eternity and there’s no death in a bookseller’s shop. Plato and Jane Austen and Keats sit side by side behind his back, Shakespeare is on his right hand and Shelley on his left. Yes. Writers, from what I’ve seen of them, are a very queer lot, but booksellers are the salt of the earth.”

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The Empathy Exams

07book "The Empathy Exam" by Leslie Jamison.Why do so many of our favorite stories involve extreme suffering? What’s the value for us in watching others’ pain? I wonder this about myself sometimes. Jude the Obscure is, after all, among my favorite books, and I enjoy reading real-life disaster stories and true crime. I have my limits, but on the whole, I like my stories sad. Happy endings to those sad stories are nice, but not required. Am I just a voyeur, relishing other people’s pain, turning it into my entertainment?

In this essay collection, Leslie Jamison explores other people’s pain—and our interest in other people’s pain. The collection begins with the title essay, “The Empathy Exams,” which describes her work as a medical actor, pretending to be sick for a series of medical students and then rating them on how well they demonstrated empathy. Her descriptions of this work alternate with the story of her own abortion and heart surgery. The jumps back and forth between the two experiences made the essay less than successful for me. There were no new insights here, aside from a few musings about the contrast between what we may expect to feel and what we actually feel. But the essay as a whole felt unpolished, rambling. It probably didn’t help that I read it in my office lunchroom with Ebola panic news stories blaring behind me on CNN, but I just reread the essay and only liked it marginally better.

The other essays, on the other hand, were great. It’s probably a good thing that one of my favorites, “Devil’s Bait,” came second in the collection, when I was trying to decide whether to continue reading. In this essay, Jamison recounts her experiences at a conference for people with Morgellons disease, a condition that involves strange, unidentified fibers growing out of sufferers’ skin, sometimes causing sores, itching, and a feeling of having insects crawling under the skin. Whether the fibers are real is up for debate, with the CDC unable to verify their reality and those with the disease being certain that they are. Jamison treats the people she speaks to with compassion, recognizing that whether or not the fibers exist, the suffering cannot be denied. She can see it in her own experience, as she talks to a woman named Dawn, who is fearful about her future:

With Dawn I fall into the easy groove of identification—I’ve felt that too—whenever she talks about her body as something that’s done her wrong. Her condition seems like a crystallization of what I’ve always felt about myself—a wrongness in my being that I could never pin or name, so I found things to pin it to: my body, my thighs, my face. This resonance is part of what compels me about Morgellons: it offers a shape for what I’ve often felt, a container or christening for a certain species of unease. Dis-ease. Though I also feel how every attempt to metaphorize the illness is also an act of violence—an argument against the bodily reality its patients insist upon.

My willingness to turn Morgellons into metaphor—as a corporeal manifestation of some abstract human tendency—is dangerous. It obscures the particular and hidden nature of the suffering in front of me.

It’s so easy to want to turn others’ suffering into our own, to seek common ground, to make their pain into something we understand. I don’t think that’s always a bad impulse, especially if it makes us more able to provide support. Yet every pain is specific, and if I assume your pain is like my pain, I might be getting your pain wrong or, worse, expecting you to cope in the same way I have. Whatever empathy we can offer on the basis of commonality of experience has limits.

But our uniqueness has limits, too, an idea Jamison explores in “In Defense of Saccharin(e).” Here, she considers why people are so often suspicious of sentimentality and wonders at what point an expression of feeling tips over into a syrupy falseness. She makes a case for strong emotion, while acknowledging her own fear of expressing it:

There are several fears inscribed in this suspicion: not simply about melodrama or simplicity but about commonality, the fear that our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert that our emotional responses are more sophisticated than other people’s, that our aesthetic sensibilities testify, iceberg style, to an entire landscape of interior depth.

In most essays, Jamison is an outsider to the suffering, observing other people in pain by visiting a prison inmate or watching a documentary about the West Memphis Three, yet she keeps her own self in view, examining her own reactions to what she’s observing. Why does she feel empathy here and not there? Some essays are more distant than others—the two “Pain Tours” are probably the least intimate, offering short descriptions of people and places she’s visited or thought about.

The final essay pulls everything together to present a “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In this essay, Jamison chronicles one story of women’s wounds after another, some real and some fictional. There’s Miss Havisham, Sylvia Plath, anorexics and cutters, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, and Carrie White. Each case is unique, yet they’re all, somehow, representative of a particularly female sort of pain. Why do these stories of suffering women resonate? Why do we tell and retell them?

Stephen King’s Carrie, the girl who was told to plug up her bleeding as soon as it became visible, eventually takes her suffering and turns it outward. Jamison writes,

The premise of Carrie is like porn for female angst: what if you could take how hard it is to be a girl—the cattiness of frenemies, the betrayals of your own body, the terror of a public gaze—and turn all of that hardship into a superpower? Carrie’s telekinesis reaches the apex of its power at the moment she is drenched in red, the moment she becomes a living wound—as if she’s just gotten her period all over herself, in front of everyone, as if she’s saying, fuck you, saying, now I know how to handle the blood.

I don’t necessarily agree with her reading of Carrie. It’s not like Carrie left that bloodbath triumphant, but perhaps that speaks to the danger that could come of taking control of our suffering. Because I do think we may tell these stories as a way of gaining control over our pain. I’ve recently gone through a couple of months of physical therapy, and my therapist told me more than once that I needed to tell her when something hurt, that keeping silent wasn’t going to help me get better. It seems obvious, but aren’t we conditioned to be stoic about our pain, even when telling someone may be the only way to cure it?

This week has seen multiple women speak up about being physically beaten by a prominent radio personality. In this case, the women kept silent for years because they didn’t think they’d be believed or they wanted to forget it. Jamison notes in this essay that doctors are more likely to give pain medicine to men than to women, discounting women’s pain as “emotional.” Women who say they won’t be heard when they speak may have a point. But maybe telling our stories again and again and again and again and again can become a way of handling the blood. Jamison closes the essay with these words:

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Maybe we listen to people’s stories of pain because those stories need to be told. And stories that need to be told also need to be heard.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 10 Comments

Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Sometimes, Gansey forgot how much he liked school and how good he was at it. But he couldn’t forget it on mornings like this one—fall fog rising out of the fields and lifting out of the mountains, the Pig running cool and loud, Ronan climbing out of the passenger seat and knocking knuckles on the roof with teeth flashing, dewy grass misting the black toes of his shoes, bag slung over his blazer, narrow-eyed Adam bumping fists as they met on the sidewalk, boys around them laughing and calling to one another, making space for the three of them because this had been a thing for so long: Gansey-Lynch-Parrish. Mornings like this one were made for memories.

There would be nothing to ruin the crisp perfection of it if not for the presence of Greenmantle somewhere and the non-presence of Maura. If not for Gwenllian and Blue’s hands and looming caves full of promises and threats. If not for everything. It was so difficult for these two worlds to co-exist.

Blue-Lily-Lily-BlueMaggie Stiefvater can paint word pictures, that’s for sure.

In this, the third of four books in her Raven Cycle series, she continues the story of Gansey, Ronan, Adam, Noah, and Blue and their quest to find and awaken Owen Glendower, believed to be buried somewhere along the ley line in Henrietta, a town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Much of the book involves the characters learning to understand their own abilities and their own desires and to determine how to control both. It’s a coming-of-age story with a supernatural twist, but Stiefvater wisely avoids turning their growing skills into obvious metaphors for teenage problems. The story is of teenagers learning who they are—but in this case, some of them have magical abilities. The magic complicates the growing-up business, which is complicated enough, but it also makes aspects of it easier. It’s seamlessly integrated into their lives, even if, as Gansey observes in the quote above, they sometimes have trouble balancing the many different aspects of their lives.

The way magic is seamlessly woven into the story is one of the things that I enjoy about this series. It takes place in our world, where magical abilities are not the norm, but these characters are able to roll with the experiences and talents that come with living on a ley line. They don’t deny the magic or spend a lot of time marveling at it. They just accept it and get to doing it. It’s not that they see it as unremarkable; they know it’s strange, and they have questions about what it means for their lives. But those questions don’t bog down the plot in a lot of magic info-dumps. Adam is the voice of the forest. OK. Ronan can retrieve objects from dreams. OK. Blue can power others’ magic. OK. Gansey. Well, Gansey can study. And Noah … well, that would be spoiling it. Anyway, the characters spend a lot more time stewing over their relationships than they do fretting about their powers.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a teen romance with a magic plot laid across the top. Yes, there is a presumably ill-fated romance, but that, too, is not a focus. Blue and Gansey worry over their growing feelings and the prophesy that when Blue kisses her true love, he will die. They try to keep the romance a secret from the others, partly because of Adam’s feelings about Blue but also, I think, because they don’t quite want to make it real. The romance gets a lot of attention, but so do the friendships among all the characters.

I appreciate that Stiefvater takes friendship relationships (and family ones!) every bit as seriously as romantic ones. These friends all care deeply about each other, but each relationship is a little different, and the characters themselves are different, depending on who they’re with. The people we’re surrounded with, whether by choice or circumstance, shape who we become, and this series does really well at showing characters in the process of becoming together. There’s a marvelous scene in which two characters come to the support of another in a concrete way that he never would have asked for or accepted in the past, and seeing him recognize the gesture for what it is instead of resenting that they could help is just wonderful. The book is filled with wonderful moments of friendship teaching people to be their best selves.

So now that I’ve finished the latest book, I’ll be joining the throngs of fans waiting for the final book. This book ends with a major development (one of which was obvious and one of which was not), and the mythology that undergirds the story is getting increasingly complicated. I am filled with questions about how it might all play out—and just as many worries for the characters I’m becoming attached to. It seems like Henrietta is filled with stories, more than one more book might be able to hold. I want more of the Lynch family—they could have their own series. (Where was Declan?) And I’d read all about the Dittleys. Maybe there’s a way to beef up Greenmantle’s story. (You embed Greenman in a character’s name, and my expectations go up.) I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve found a new favorite fictional world, with lots of scope for the imagination.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

mr penumbraClay Jannon has lost his job in the Great Recession, and he really needs to keep a roof over his head. (Not just any roof, either: he lives in San Francisco.) So when he sees a Help Wanted sign in Mr. Penumbra’s very odd bookstore, he walks in and asks for the job. When the job turns out to be extremely peculiar — less of a bookstore clerk and more of a librarian to an ancient society of codebreakers — Clay doesn’t mind; he’s good-natured and curious and likes involving his friends, who have a mind-boggling array of talents. (One works for Google, one makes intricate model cities and monsters for films, one owns a software company that… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself what it does.) Gradually, solving the puzzles and breaking the codes becomes the Big Question for Clay and for everyone around him. Can they help Mr. Penumbra solve the Founder’s secret of eternal life?

I think my reading of this book was greatly impaired by my expectations of it. I want a book about a bookstore to be about the love of books, first and foremost. Instead, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is mostly about computers. I have to share with you that I am so bored (SO BORED) with the endless barrage of articles questioning whether the Internet is going to kill books/ reading as we know it/ the independent bookstore/ the large bookstore/ our attention span / my pet hamster.  Please! Folks! I’m reading over here! So when this novel turned out to be largely about the excitements of 3-D modeling and data visualization and OCR and large array codebreaking, I was annoyed. There was almost no one in the novel who was the least interested in the content of books, since most of the ones they were dealing with were either the encrypted means-to-an-end or the Potemkin bookstore hiding it.

I was also frankly quite irritated by the narrator. He’s inoffensive enough, I guess, friendly guy, harmless bookstore clerk suddenly embroiled in ancient mystery. But when he meets Kat, a brilliant woman who works at Google and who is interested in technology as afterlife, there was just not one single thing she said, no matter how smart or relevant, that he didn’t respond to (internally) with “cute” or “jealous.”

This girl is a Googler. So she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a really cute way.

“At Google, we do them for search logs,” she says. “It’s cool — you’ll see some new idea flash across the world, like a little epidemic. Then it burns out in a week.” This sounds very interesting to me, but mostly because this girl is very interesting to me.

“Personally, I think the big change is going to be our brains,” Kat says, tapping just above her ear, which is pink and cute.

Arrrrrgh! Stop it! That would be irritating even if I thought it was well-written.

There were some good and interesting things about this book, of course. (Read the blurbs! Everyone liked it except me.) As I mentioned in my last review, for some reason I’ve recently had a run of reading that deals with books and immortality. Kat is devastated by the idea that our lives are so short. How do we counteract that? Vitamins, cryogenics, space bubbles? When she thinks the secret might lie in books, she puts all of Google’s mighty powers to work on Mr. Penumbra’s secret. The parts about typography were good, as well, and the crazy section about the storage warehouse.

Have you read this one? Am I wrong about it? I’m afraid I liked the book I expected it to be much better than the book it actually was.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 12 Comments

A Stranger in Olondria

stranger in olondriaJevick is from Tyom, a small village in the Tea Islands. He has lived here all his childhood, learning the delicate art of pepper-growing from his father, hardly understanding his own isolation, until one day his father brings back something new from the mainland: an Olondrian tutor named Lunre. Lunre teaches Jevick to read, to love the printed word, to see it as immortality; and he teaches him to long for the country the books come from, as well. Upon his father’s death, Jevick leaves for Olondria and the fabled city of Bain, believing that now, his real life can begin.

Despite his  brief encounter with a red-headed island girl dying from kyitna, an inherited wasting disease, Jevick dives into his new life in Bain, noticing every lush detail.

Housed on the site of ancient horse and cattle auctions, the vast covered markets, with their arched leather roofs made to keep out the rain, form a jumbled labyrinth that stretches almost to the harbor. Here in the shadows the lavish, open sacks display their contents: the dark cumin redolent of mountains, the dried, crushed red pepper colored richly as iron ore, and turmeric, “the element of weddings.”… There are herbs, fresh and dried — mint, marjoram, and basil; there are dark cones and mud-like blocks of incense; there are odors in the air that seem to speak to one another, as though the market were filled with violent ghosts.

Jevick pays less and less attention to his pepper trade and more and more to wandering in Bain, until one feast day, walking in the streets, he is caught up in the frenzied cult-worship of the ancient goddess Avalei. In the aftermath, his head aching, in desperate need of a shower, he has a deeply frightening experience he can’t explain. Then another. And another. And finally he comes to a conclusion he can neither believe nor deny: he is being haunted by the red-headed girl he met on the boat. And the ghost (referred to in Olondria as an angel) wants him to write a book.

You know how these things sometimes happen — I’ve read three books in a row now that deal with books and immortality. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar, is certainly the most complex of them. If the written word promises eternal life, as Jevick has been taught to believe, then what happens when he is haunted by the ghost of an illiterate girl? What are we to make of the many examples of oral culture in the book — stories within the story — epics, fairy tales, ballads, songs, myths? What happens if libraries are destroyed? Is there such a thing as the tyranny of the written word? What arises when a previously oral culture gains an alphabet and someone writes it down? What about barriers of language, culture, class? What happens to memory and tradition in a culture without books?

Stylistically, A Stranger in Olondria is different than most contemporary novels you’ll read. A lot happens in this book, but it feels slow and measured. There are long passages of description and not a lot of dialogue, and while it’s a ghost story, it’s also a story about power dynamics and belief systems. It’s a book that takes more of its storytelling tradition from Africa and the Middle East than from northern Europe — and that, too, is unusual, for the landscape of most fantasy novels.

I found myself thinking about this book long after I’d finished it. I was still digesting it: thinking about the different religions in it, the structures that had decreed that the “cult of angels” (i.e. being haunted by a ghost”) was mental illness and was outlawed. It’s a book that keeps on at you. It’s highly recommended. Here, if you like, is a short story of Samatar’s that I also enjoyed: “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.” Try it and see what you think, and let me know.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Likeness

the likenessLast year, my mystery book club (we read mysteries, rather than being shrouded in mystery ourselves) read Tana French’s In the Woods. I admit that I was a bit prejudiced against it from the beginning, since it’s a) about a child’s murder, b) contemporary, and c) popular. But it pulled me in, suckered me, made me love it. French’s prose is very good, her plotting is excellent, and her sense for human relationships — the places in our psychology that make us long for connection and then screw that connection all to hell — is absolutely unerring. I had one or two reservations about In the Woods, but I had the strong feeling that those might be debut-novel problems, so I put her second novel on my TBR.

The Likeness begins with an absolutely preposterous premise — right up front! It doesn’t spring anything on you! — and builds an amazing mystery-thriller out of it. For this book, French brings back detective Cassie Maddox, who was one of the partners who solved the case in In the Woods. This time, the novel is from her point of view, as she goes undercover to solve the murder of Lexie Madison. The catch? Lexie Madison isn’t — or wasn’t — a real person; she was a former undercover identity of Cassie’s. Now, she’s shown up as a real dead body, and she looks as if she could be Cassie’s identical twin. (Cassie was an only child.) Cassie steps into Lexie’s life (only who is she really?) in the tight-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, to try to find out where all the tangled threads may lead.

You see what I mean, right? The doppelgänger thing is right out of Wilkie Collins or somewhere; I expected mesmerism next; and at first, the group of housemates, all postgrad students at Trinity College in Dublin, leaned a little too heavily on Donna Tartt. But French is too talented to let it stay that way. Cassie’s fierce love of the freedom of undercover work, and the fuse that lights in her; the interweaving personalities of the four housemates; the undercurrent of Lexie’s life and the actions leading to her death — all this is done with vividness and delicacy. French lets us see the beauty of those friendships, but also the way people can know each other so well that they drown each other. I mentioned that she’s good at the fragility of human relationships, and this book reinforces that in more ways than one.

This was a very satisfying mystery, beautifully written and breathlessly suspenseful. It was dark, but not because the detective was hopelessly depressed (*cough* Henning Mankell *cough*). To my own surprise, I think I’ve found a new favorite mystery author, huzzah!

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 20 Comments

The Nursing-Home Murder

nursing home murderThis novel is the third of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries. I know I blaspheme by saying this, but I have never been that fond of most of Agatha Christie’s novels; with a few exceptions I find them too formulaic and two-dimensional to be enjoyable. The best of Christie’s, though, have interesting suspects and exceptional puzzle-making, lifting them out of the common run. The Nursing-Home Murder gives me all of that, and Roderick Alleyn besides.

This book runs along fairly familiar lines. The victim (this time the Home Secretary!) turns out to have at least five or six people with very good reason to kill him, and indeed three who’d recently expressed a formal desire to do so. Easy pickings for the police, you’d think, but in fact it’s more complicated, and in the end a complete reconstruction of the crime, which took place in an operating theatre, is necessary to jog the memories of the witnesses. The book was originally published in 1935, and I think the solution to the crime is especially interesting in that light. But you’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree with me!

Alleyn is a curiosity to me. Christie, of course, had two private detectives (Poirot having left a career in the Brussels police because of the war.) Campion is a high-born hobbyist and an adventurer. Wimsey, similarly, is of noble blood; others see his crime-solving as mere dilettantism. Alleyn, by contrast, is a gentleman — the right schools, the right family — but he’s gainfully employed by Scotland Yard. This gives him entree into two worlds: upper-class people won’t dismiss him as a servant, but he still has the power to put his very own handcuffs on them if he likes. What was Marsh doing, exactly? It looks as if she was pushing back against a notion that it was a bit low to be part of the police force (see Sherlock Holmes.) Alleyn smartens the place up a bit.

I’m thoroughly enjoying Marsh’s novels. They’re not Dorothy Sayers, but they’re great Golden Age reads. Have you read these? Do you have a favorite?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 18 Comments

Thomas Hardy

Thomas HardyI was irrationally worried when I started reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. You see, Hardy is my favorite writer, and I didn’t want to find out he was terrible, that he kicked puppies or something. Generally, I don’t mind reading books my people I don’t like much, but still, the idea that my favorite author could be a puppy-kicker … it made me nervous.

In Tomalin’s telling, I’m happy to report, Hardy is not a perfect man, but he was a generally decent man. The UK edition has the subtitle, “The Time-Torn Man,” a phrase the speaker uses to describe himself in Hardy’s poem “A Broken Appointment.” The poem refers to a lovers’ meeting that didn’t happen, and Tomalin says that it is commonly believed to be about his love for a woman named Florence Henniker. Henniker is one of several women for whom Hardy suffered love or lack of it. And, in a way, all of his love affairs seem “time-torn” because there is often love, but it is torn away by time or the time when it could be shared is torn away.

Tomalin begins her biography with the death of one of the principal women in Thomas Hardy’s life, his first wife, Emma, before moving back to tell his story from the beginning. Thomas and Emma’s marriage had been troubled toward the end, with Emma moving into the attic and having no more to do with Thomas than she had to. Tomalin writes with compassion about the growing discontent that followed what seemed a lively and romantic courtship in which the couple held strong to their love despite their families’ disapproval. She notes the reasons each one might have had to be unhappy and never quite comes down on one side or the other. But she does show that there was love there—or something like love.

Other women are part of the reason for the marriage’s faltering. Hardy enjoyed flirting with the pretty women who loved his books, yet he also seemed to continue to seem attached to Emma. After her death, he wrote poem after poem expressing his regrets and sadness, yet, as Tomalin tells it, Emma rejected him as much as he rejected her. His second marriage is tainted by his memory of Emma, although, again, there is love, both before and after the marriage.

Tomalin’s ability to see more than one point of view is one of the strengths of this biography. Tomalin does an admirable job of sticking to the known facts as much as possible, even including a robust notes section (with endnote numbers in the text!). Her choice of facts will perhaps reveal her biases to those more aware of whatever controversies exist surrounding Hardy’s life story, but she doesn’t appear to have an agenda, and it’s clear when she’s speculating. Speculation of the type Tomalin engages in, considering why Emma might have been unhappy, for example, can be useful in a biography, but I don’t have much interest in biographies built entirely on speculation. With Tomalin, I always felt I was in good hands.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the chapters describing the novels—I think I just like thinking about Hardy’s novels! Tomalin puts his books in context of the time, commenting on how he compared to his literary peers and how his work was received. It’s clear that she loves his novels, and her insights reminded me of love much I love these books, even though I take issue with her complaints about the final words of Jude the Obscure, which I think are meant to convey a feeling experienced by this character in this moment, not a universal fact.

The trouble with reading this book is that now I want to continue in my project of reading all Hardy’s novels—and I want to reread Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge. A steady diet of Thomas Hardy couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, could it?

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Which Witch?

which witchJenny at Reading the End has been recommending Eva Ibbotson for years and years, and particularly as a comfort read. While I recognize that comfort reads work better if you’re re-reading, I thought that since I was in need of something of that sort myself, I’d give it a try. What could it possibly hurt? Our library has half a shelf of her books, so I picked Which Witch? almost at random, and took it home. It begins:

As soon as he was born, Mr. and Mrs. Canker knew that their baby was not like other people’s children.

For one thing, he was born with a full set of teeth and would lie in his pram for hours, chewing huge mutton bones to shreds or snapping at the noses of old ladies fool enough to kiss him. For another, though he screamed with temper when they changed his nappies, his eyes never actually filled with tears. Also — and perhaps this was strangest of all — as soon as they brought him home from the hospital and lit a nice, bright fire in the sitting room, the smoke from their chimney began to blow against the wind.

Of course, the baby is a wizard, and grows up to be Arriman the Awful, smiting and blighting wherever he goes. Eventually, however, all this begins to pall, and he wants to pass on his heritage to a son — which, unfortunately, necessitates a wife. Arriman decides that the best way to find a wife is to have a contest: the witches of Todcaster will vie for his hand by casting their blackest spells. Too bad the witch who is most in love with him is a white witch…

About three chapters into this book, I began to feel a little outraged. Why on earth had I never heard of this author? This is exactly the kind of book I’d have loved as a child. It’s both clever and funny, with references to things children might have heard of but could figure out if they hadn’t, like the Kraken. It’s well-written and well-plotted, with lots of interesting characters (I particularly loved a genie in a bottle called Mr. Chatterjee.) It’s got quite genuinely scary bits in it, but nothing so overwhelming that the target audience would have nightmares (I’m looking at you, John Bellairs.) The ending is so satisfying and lovely that it actually brought a warm glow to my jaded, cinder-blackened heart. So why was this the first book of Eva Ibbotson’s I’d ever read? Ridiculous! I blame, in this order, my parents, Nature, the Will of God, and the Burke Branch Public Library.

Now, however, it’s my job to read more of her work, and I think I’ll do it by reading it aloud to my children before bedtime. They’re just the right age for it (7 and 9) and that way, no one will have to explain to their therapists how I never introduced them to Eva Ibbotson…

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments