March 3rd, 2014
In this mystery, set in London in 1875, Charles Lenox, member of Parliament, is yet again drawn back to detective work: at the start of the book his former protégé, Lord Dallington, asks him to go to a meeting with a potential client in his stead. (Dallington is too ill to go himself, and the client contacted him via an anonymous letter, so he can’t reschedule.) Lenox of course agrees, and of course ends up involved in the whole case, which at first looks only to be blackmail, but soon turns more sinister. The pleasure of this series, for me, lies more in the setting and the characters than in the plot of any given crime: I like Lenox and his circle, and how solid the bonds of love and friendship and loyalty between them are, and I like the descriptions of London and its streets and houses and weather and light. In this book, I was really pleased by this pair of descriptions, the first of a morning and the second of an evening:
It was a crisp, white-skied spring morning, with a firm breeze minutely rearranging the world every few seconds as it gusted, a collar flicked up before it settled again, weak new petals scattered from their branches into the streets. (19)
Jenkins lit his pipe; the smell of fire and tobacco made the room feel closer, a small lamplit vessel afloat in the great unending gray of the day’s weather. (252)
February 26th, 2014
The Daylight Gate, which uses the basic circumstances of a 1612 witch trial in Lancashire as its starting point (“but with necessary speculations and inventions,” as Winterson puts it in the introduction) is much more bleak and gruesome than I tend to like my fiction. There are rapes; there is torture; there is a severed head dug up from a grave, and a tongue bitten out of someone’s mouth. Though there are some supernatural moments, the horror in this book is pretty solidly of the human variety: the poor and powerless “intoxicating themselves with the thought of power,” and those in power using it to persecute others (35). What beauty and hope exists is mostly of the human variety, too: love, and choice, and connection, and loyalty. “I think we are worlds compressed into human form,” the protagonist says at one point (72). Another character thinks about how “at every moment the chances change”—how life is a series of “ifs” that could have gone differently, that could go differently until they don’t (168). There are questions of fate and choice, images of people as being trapped in a set of circumstances, or not, and I think those were the bits of this book I liked best.
Meanwhile, because it is too pleasing not to share, here is a description of London from this book: oh man I love list-paragraphs like this:
Stables, kennels, breweries, carpenters’ shops, pudding dens, low-roofed sheds where they sewed jerkins or rolled candles. Inns, taverns, bakers, cook shops, men and women smoking clay pipes carrying fish baskets on their heads. Dogs running in and out of the cartwheels, a parrot on a perch, a women selling bolts of cloth from a cart. A tinker with pots and pans hung round his thin body. A fiddler playing a melody. A sheep on a rope, the smell of mutton flesh cooking, the smell of iron being heated till it glowed. A little boy with bare feet, a girl carrying a baby, two soldiers, ragged and thin. (177-178)
February 23rd, 2014
My boyfriend gave me a copy of this book for my birthday last year, but my birthday’s in late April and this is definitely a wintry book, or maybe a winter-on-the-edge-of-spring book, so it took us a while to pick it up. We read this aloud to each other, alternating chapters, on the evening of a February day that felt like spring but was, according to the weather forecast, only a temporary reprieve from polar-vortex cold, and it was really satisfying. It’s a middle-reader chapter book, so it’s short and straightforward; it’s also well-written, with some beautiful descriptive passages and bits of humor.
The hero of the story is Odd, a twelve-year-old boy in Viking Norway who’s always smiling despite things not being so great for him: his father is dead, he injured his leg in an accident while chopping down a tree, and his stepdad has too many kids from his own first marriage to want to deal with a “crippled stepson.” Meanwhile, winter is seemingly endless, and tensions in Odd’s village are high. Odd decides to go off alone to his father’s old hut in the woods, and spends a night there, after which he’s woken up in the morning by a fox scratching at the door. The fox clearly seems to want Odd to follow him, so Odd does, and we get this great passage:
It was, Odd concluded, an animal with a plan. He had no plans, other than a general determination never to return to the village. And it was not every day that you got to follow a fox.
So he did. (14)
The fox leads him to a bear whose paw is stuck in a tree, and Odd frees the bear, hoping he won’t turn out to be the bear’s lunch; the bear, far from eating him, lets Odd ride on his back, and the bear, the fox, an eagle who’s been flying overhead, and Odd all make their way back to Odd’s cabin, where the animals seem to want to come inside. Odd figures he might as well let them in, and they spend the night: when he wakes to hear them talking, he’s certain they aren’t ordinary animals: this, too, is funny and great:
“Somebody was talking,” said Odd, “and it wasn’t me. There isn’t anyone else in here. That means it was you lot. And there’s no point in arguing.”
“We weren’t arguing,” said the bear. “Because we can’t talk.” Then it said, “Oops.” (28)
So: the bear and the eagle and the fox turn out to be Thor and Odin and Loki, turned into animals and cast out of Asgard by an invading Frost Giant, which is why it’s still winter: Frost Giants like the cold. Odd, of course, ends up helping the gods get back to their kingdom and to their proper forms, and bringing the spring thaw to Midgard in the process. I like that it’s Odd’s quiet persistence (along with some help from the gods) that lets him succeed on his quest: mostly he just does what he needs to do, even when no one else thinks it’ll work, and he turns out to be right.
Other highlights of the book for me included the moment when Odd and the gods cross back to Asgard via the rainbow bridge:
Scarlet fell softly about them and everything was outlined in greens and blues and the world was raspberry-colored and leaf-colored and golden-colored and fire-colored and blueberry-colored and wine-colored. (54-55)
I also love Odd’s description of how he won Asgard back:
“Magic,” said Odd, and he smiled, and thought, If magic means letting things do what they wanted to do, or be what they wanted to be… (97)
February 22nd, 2014
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is the sixth mystery by Alan Bradley featuring Flavia de Luce, a precocious eleven-year-old fond of chemistry and crime-solving, but it’s a bit less of a mystery than the others. There is a death, practically at the start of the book (a stranger gives Flavia a message to pass on to her father, and then is pushed under a train), but Flavia’s energies aren’t really directed toward solving it: she’s too busy dealing with a major upheaval at home. Flavia never knew her mother, Harriet: she disappeared in the Himalayas when Flavia was about a year old, and has long been presumed dead. But now her body has been found and is being returned home for a funeral and burial, and Flavia finds that having a certainly-dead mother feels different from having a presumed-dead mother. Meanwhile, there are some mysterious things: Winston Churchill himself arrives with Harriet’s body, and there’s that message from the stranger, and also the arrival of a cousin from Cornwall who was apparently talking to the stranger just before he died, all of which make Flavia wonder what the stranger was talking about, what exactly her mother was up to in the Himalayas, and whether her death was really an accident. But even that mystery feels less central to the book than Flavia’s attempts to deal with the emotions brought up by the return of her mother’s body: at one point she decides she’s going to try to resurrect Harriet, which is awful and squirm-inducing: it feels like Flavia must know it won’t ever work (and would be a pretty terrible idea regardless), but she’s not ready to let go of the possibility of knowing her mother. Meanwhile, Flavia’s relationship to her father, and even to her sisters, with whom she normally spars quite a lot, takes a turn toward tenderness in this book, and it feels like Flavia is becoming more self-aware and aware of others, which adds depth and heart to the narrative.
February 9th, 2014
In 1985 in the alternate England in which The Eyre Affair takes place, time travel is possible, the Crimean War has been going on for 131 years, Wales is independent, and classic English literature is a very big deal. Our heroine, Thursday Next, is a LiteraTec (Literary Detective): a special agent whose department investigates manuscript thefts and forgeries. Near the start of the book, Thursday gets called to the scene of a major crime: the manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit has been stolen. The suspect turns out to be one Acheron Hades, an uber-villain who was once a university professor: Thursday’s called to the case because she was his student and knows what he looks like. Hades is not just a master criminal: he has some extraordinary powers, including the ability to “hear his own name—even whispered—over a thousand-yard radius, perhaps more” (26). He also doesn’t show up on film or video, can stop bullets with his bare hands, and has “amazing persuasive powers over those of weak mind” (27). So what does Hades want with the manuscript? Is it money he wants, or does he have something more devious planned? In her investigations, Thursday has a near-death experience and gets entangled with a massive corporation who also would like to find Hades; her genius inventor uncle gets drawn into the story, too, because of his latest invention, the Prose Portal, which lets its user enter a piece of literature. But the Prose Portal isn’t the only way into a book, as Thursday herself can attest: in this world, it seems that the “barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through; the hole is frozen over by the following morning” (206).
As it turns out, what Hades is interested in is a particular kind of extortion: he kidnaps and kills a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit and threatens to do worse. He ends up stealing the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, too, and removing Jane herself from the novel’s pages, which of course means Thursday has to figure out how to get Jane back into the novel.
The tone of the book is funny, by which I mean both humorous and odd: it sometimes reads like a parody of hard-boiled detective novels, sometimes it’s all puns and silly wordplay (character names include Paige Turner and Jack Schitt), and it can’t seem to decide whether it’s a first-person narrative limited to Thursday’s experiences or not. Some of the moments of humor tied to the world-building Fforde has done are great: I love that in Thursday’s world, people have pet dodos (they’ve been revived from extinction via DIY cloning kits), people who think Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays try to proselytize door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and there are audience-participation Rocky Horror Picture Show-style productions of Richard III. I love that there is a riot at a pub when a of Raphaelites and a group of neosurrealists clash, and that the scene includes this:
The demonstrators outside chanted Italian Renaissance slogans and then stones and missiles were thrown. The neosurrealists responded by charging the lines protected by large soft watches and seemed to be winning until the police moved in. (120)
Despite the humor being lots of fun, this book wasn’t quite for me: it’s very plot-driven, which is not my favorite thing, and the writing is sometimes clunky: twice the word “remiss” is wrongly used when it should be “amiss,” and I found myself wondering how many times the word “grunted” was used to describe someone’s reply in a conversation (ten, which maybe doesn’t seem like that many, but I found it grating). I also had moments of annoyance at the characterization of Thursday: as Michiko Kakutani puts it in her review in The New York Times, “Thursday is part Bridget Jones, part Nancy Drew and part Dirty Harry,” and I maybe could have done without the Bridget Jones-ish bits, like when Thursday makes negative comments about other women’s weights (I don’t think she comments on any guys’ bodies in similar ways).
February 2nd, 2014
I enjoyed this book more than the first in this series, maybe just because I was more in the mood for it, or maybe because the setting and characters are largely already established, which lets things flow more smoothly. The book opens with an interruption: fifteen-year-old Sophronia Temminick and her best friend, Dimity, both students at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, are pulled from class by a teacher. Having the book start in the middle of a school-day (and giving Sophronia time to think as she walks down the halls to wherever she’s being taken) works as a way to ease the reader back into this world of a finishing school that specializes in espionage, is housed in a dirigible, and has mechanical household staff and lessons in “drawing-room music and subversive petits-fours” (2). The interruption turns out to be for the girls’ six-month review, which is a hands-on exam of what they’ve learned so far: this test, though, is only the first that Sophronia faces throughout the book.
As in the last book, there are questions of intrigue and politics and danger: in this one, someone seems to be out to kidnap Dimity and her brother Pillover; there’s also a new technology that will allow dirigibles to go higher than ever before, and a question of who will control the production and sale of that technology: the government? vampires? an anti-paranormal group called the Picklemen? And as in the last book, Sophronia has to deal with all this while also figuring out boarding school/teenage life/growing up: in this book there are social difficulties to navigate, the realization that actions can have bigger consequences than intended, and also a romance subplot where Sophronia finds herself being courted by the son of a duke, while also realizing that Soap, who works in the school’s boiler room and who she’s been thinking of as just a friend, clearly has more than friendly feelings for her.
The humor/silliness of this book is a big part of its appeal. On Sophronia’s friend Sidheag: “Sidheag could be quite crass, the result of having been raised by men, or Scots, or soldiers, or werewolves, or all four” (21). On the young Genevieve Lefoux: “Sophronia was struck, yet again, by how old Vieve always sounded and acted. One would never have guessed from her speech that she was ten. From her actions, occasionally, yes. She did bounce” (54). On a vampire-teacher’s facial hair: “His mustache was a fluffy caterpillar of curiosity, perched and ready to inquire, dragging the vampire along behind it on the investigation” (81). There’s also a great/hilarious scene with a mechanical chaise longue.
February 1st, 2014
This book starts with an arrival in a place far from home and ends with a homecoming of sorts, a return to a familiar place and family and a feeling of normalcy, though it isn’t the book’s opening trip to India that Shopsin’s returning from. (The three cities of the book’s title are indeed visited in that order, though it’s really more like Mumbai New York Scranton New York, but that wouldn’t be as good a title.) The book isn’t exactly about travel, though it has travel in it: it’s partly about that trip to India, but also about, as the flap copy puts it, “the harrowing adventure that unfolds” at that trip’s end. That made me a little nervous: I don’t really like to read about harrowing adventures. But this book won me over: I started it on a Monday morning in London and finished it later that day, in an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic.
Part of the appeal of this book is how well-designed it is: Shopsin is a graphic designer and illustrator, and her husband, Jason Fulford, is a photographer whose black-and-white photos from their trip to India are included in the text (along with drawings by Shopsin), so it’s not surprising that it’s visually very appealing. The book consists of prose in numbered sections, with illustrations in line with the text and photos getting their own pages. There’s a lot of white space: lots of pages only have a few paragraphs of text on them, and one page consists of just one sentence (“In the middle of the night I wake up and eat all the oranges” (6)). The writing, meanwhile, is matter-of-fact, present-tense: it brings the reader close to Shopsin’s story, which is a good strategy, as this post by Matthew Simmons on HTMLGIANT explains nicely.
I love the details in the first section of the book, when Shopsin and Fulford are traveling in India: little moments combine to create pictures of places. In Mumbai: “A beige one-button mouse skips along the street. A little girl is dragging it by the cord like an old pull toy” (8). Also in Mumbai: there’s a stall on the street where you can bring a handwritten letter to a man and pay him to type it for you. Shopsin and Fulford do: “The typist follows each of our letters with an old ruler to keep track while he types. He corrects two spelling errors and “color” turns to “colour.” I think it can’t get any better, but then he types the addresses on the envelopes” (9). In Mysore, where Shopsin and Fulford find a letterpress shop: “The street smells like ink. Small shops are bursting with paper and presses” (83). I like the kind of travelers Shopsin and Fulford are: at the letterpress shop, they decide to place an order for pads of paper for friends at home, with their friends’ nicknames printed on the top; also in Mysore, they end up watching a school talent show, joining the “crowds of people [filing] into a public auditorium” one evening (91). I like the details in the section about Shopsin and Fulford’s return to New York, too: Shopsin going downstairs and getting breakfast from her favorite deli, where there’s a newspaper clipping on a wall: “The story is about a dangerous intersection located in downtown Brooklyn. The article has a photo of some blurry cars and my deli’s awning circled proudly in red marker. In the photo, “You go girl” is spray-painted above my deli. I always took the turquoise bubble letters to heart and was sad last year when my landlord painted over the graffiti” (134). And that harrowing adventure? Yep, it’s harrowing, and well-told: Shopsin captures a time of crisis and the way the people around her, including her husband and sister, supported her as she made her way through it.
Though the writing style and subject matter aren’t particularly similar, this book made me think of Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which I also loved: apparently I’m a sucker for memoirs by illustrators who do a really good job of telling their stories in both words and pictures?
January 23rd, 2014
I. I’ve never seen any of Chris Marker’s films, but this book made me want to. (You can watch La Jetée online, or it’s available on DVD, along with Marker’s 1982 film, Sans Soleil.) (I’ve never read Moby-Dick, either, and this book made me want to do that as well.)
II. Howe’s book is mostly in prose: nineteen numbered sections ranging in length from a paragraph to twenty-two pages, with images from films interspersed with the text: an airplane seen from below, a woman with an inscrutable expression, a scene of dismay, a fuzzy image of, what, a shadow on water? Soldiers cross a frozen lake; a balloon hovers/wavers. Another blur; three blonde children walking; that woman, again. There is one other image: the return address on an envelope, postmarked January 1943 from Roswell, New Mexico: a letter from Howe’s then-future husband, now deceased.
III. Don’t worry: this isn’t going to be nineteen sections long.
IV. What’s interesting and challenging about this book is the way Howe brings together so many different strands. She’s writing about the films of Chris Marker, sometimes in detail, scene by scene, but also writes that she “was drawn to the project because of the fact of [her] husband’s death and [her] wish to find a way to document his life and work” (5). Other filmmakers make an appearance: Dziga Vertov, Andrei Tarkovsky. Howe writes about Ivan’s Childhood and also about the movie-going experiences of her own childhood, and also about her husband’s life as a pilot in wartime, and also about the death of Lenin and Three Songs about Lenin, and also about American literature she knows well: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, the idea of montage in their work.
V. The word “fact” keeps recurring. “Without words, what are facts?” (7). The idea of “the primacy of the “factual”" in Vertov’s work (9). Poets and nonfiction filmakers as working by “factual telepathy” (7). The world is “flooded with facts” (13).
VI. There’s something so satisfying about the kind of close-reading that Howe is doing of Marker’s films. Like this:
La Jetée, composed almost entirely of photo stills, begins abruptly with a violent out-of-field-movement-sound-image, the roar of revving and hovering jet engines. Sometimes I think I hear sirens, until the whine or scream of aviation doubles and dissolves into cathedral music: voices in a choir sing passages from the Russian Liturgy of the Good Saturday. In northern Russia, Iceland, and other northern places, the sun never goes out of sight in summer. La Jetée’s aborted soundtrack takeoff evokes technicist and eschatological worldviews.
Immediately time could be going either way. (13-14)
VII. There is in this book a sense of “oscillating between presence and absence” (10). Howe writes about her husband; Howe writes to her husband. Howe writes about her husband’s image in photographs, in a home-movie; she writes about his studio, now gone: she “can only perceive its imprint or trace” (25). Her husband’s daughter, from an earlier marriage, “remembers listening to the noise of waves breaking over pebbles in the cove at night, how tides pulled them under, how they swirled and regrouped in the drift and came back” (25). “A documentary work is an attempt to recapture someone something somewhere looking back” (50).
January 17th, 2014
Near the start of this book, Charles Lenox, detective turned politician, gets a letter from his late mother’s cousin (who he knows as Uncle Frederick) asking him to come visit him at his country estate. Charles isn’t planning to go, but then he’s invited to give the opening speech for the upcoming session of Parliament, and starts to think having someplace quiet to work on it might not be a bad idea. At home, Charles keeps getting unwanted visits from other politicians trying to tell him what to talk about (this is often fairly hilarious, as in the below exchange):
His approach was direct. “What these speeches want in them is more of Jesus.”
“D’you think so?” said Lenox.
“I do. Country sports and Jesus—all of our problems could be solved by one of the two, Mr. Lenox.”
“Not the Suez question?”
“What, you want the coal miners’ children to go hunting?” (22)
Making the country even more tempting, though, is the postscript of Frederick’s letter: Plumbley, the village near his estate, has experienced a string of vandalisms, and he wonders if Charles might be able to investigate. Having recently had dinner with John Dallington, his former protégé, Lenox is perhaps thinking more than usual about how much he misses detective work. And so he packs up his wife and infant daughter, and sets off for Somerset with governess, butler, and maid in tow. Once he’s there, Frederick tells him about the vandalisms: first one shop’s windows were broken with a rock; then the same thing happened with another shop. Both rocks had pieces of paper wrapped around them, each with a drawing of a figure hanging from a noose. Nothing was taken from the first shop, but a clock was stolen from the second. Next, the church doors were vandalized, first with the Roman numeral XXII, then with a painting of a black dog. Charles thinks it’s likely just village boys making mischief, but Frederick is sure it isn’t: they’d all been put under a curfew between the second instance of vandalism and the third. The townspeople suspect one Captain Josiah Musgrave, an outsider who married a local girl and who seems to be mistreating her; it doesn’t help that Musgrave has a black dog, but its unclear what the vandalisms mean or what their motivation might be. Before long, though, something worse than vandalism happens: there’s a murder in the village of Plumbley.
Lenox, of course, figures out the murder (though there’s also a twist), and, meanwhile, has a country vacation, complete with horseback riding and a cricket match. I found this book less atmospherically pleasing than the previous one in the series, but still enjoyed it plenty. My one complaint is the way the historical detail is worked in: sometimes it’s great, as with an offhand mention of cattle that suffocated to death from the London fog in 1873 (it’s true, according to London Fogs), but sometimes it just feels clunky to me, in passages like this:
The quality of the average constable in the bucolic parts of England varied greatly. London itself had only had an official police presence for the last forty-odd years, since Sir Robert Peel had established the Metropolitan Police Force at Scotland Yard. (The members of the new troop had been called “bobbies” in honor of the founder’s forename.) It was only in the last ten years that, by law, every town in Great Britain had perforce to hire and pay someone specifically to impose the law. (69)
Despite that, though, I’ve already requested the next book in this series from the library: I guess I’m not that bothered.
January 7th, 2014
Whose Body? is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and the first Dorothy L. Sayers book I’ve read: I suspect I will read more. Lord Peter Wimsey is an aristocrat/amateur detective who collects rare books: when this novel opens he’s on his way to a book sale but gets sidetracked when he hears about a mystery to investigate. The mystery is a murder: an architect in Battersea has discovered a dead man in his bathtub, naked except for a pair of gold pince-nez. Who is the dead man, and how did he end up in a stranger’s apartment?
Meanwhile, Wimsey learns from his friend Parker, who’s on the police force, that a “famous financier”—Sir Reuben Levy—has disappeared, under strange circumstances (28). Levy seems to have gone out to dinner with friends, left for an appointment, returned home, slept in his bed, then vanished. None of his clothes are missing; he’s even left his glasses behind, despite being very near-sighted. Another inspector from Scotland Yard is convinced the body in the bath is Levy: it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t, but are the two cases connected?
I was pretty charmed by this book, particularly by Wimsey’s interactions with some of the supporting characters, and also by Sayers’s style, which is smart and often funny and sometimes earnestly concerned with the business of being a person in a world of other people. I love that our first description of Wimsey’s appearance is this, which is ridiculous and funny and great: “His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola” (9). I love Wimsey’s valet, Bunter, who makes sure Wimsey is dressed appropriately and is passionate about photography and assists with gathering evidence. I love how Wimsey, when given a reason to stay involved with the investigation of the Battersea case, says “I feel so happy, I shall explode” (47). And I like Wimsey’s interactions with Parker, in passages like this:
“Well, it’s no good jumping at conclusions.”
“Jump? You don’t even crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion. I believe if you caught the cat with her head in the cream-jug you’d say it was conceivable that the jug was empty when she got there.”
“Well, it would be conceivable, wouldn’t it?”
“Curse you,” said Lord Peter. (67)
“That’s what I’m ashamed of, really,” said Lord Peter. It is a game to me, to begin with, and I go on cheerfully, and then I suddenly see that somebody is going to be hurt, and I want to get out of it.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said the detective, “but that’s because you’re thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that’s childish. If you’ve any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That’s all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn’t any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent—what’s that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, “Well played—hard luck—you shall have your revenge tomorrow!’ Well, you can’t do it like that. Life’s not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can’t be a sportsman. You’re a responsible person.”
“I don’t think you ought to read so much theology,” said Lord Peter. “It has a brutalizing influence.” (158-159)