This month’s winter of discontent came with a vengeance: appallingly bad weather, which, in Montreal, consists of cycles of freezing and thawing that leave us with ice-ponds to navigate and barricades of snow to o’er-leap; a non-stop work month from hell for me (I am, blissfully, on a two-week March break as of Friday, though my tax-time piles and dust-bunnies are balefully eying me); a world imploding in war; and reading conducted in the early morning hours when anxiety saw me sullenly awake before dawn. But I did read some books, none of which made anything better, but which I loved, enjoyed, and respected, respectively: Tana French’s The Likeness, Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Having Read Sayers and Greer
When you read a lot of bad prose as a high school English teacher, you hunger for the good stuff, which is how I ended up reading two books this brutal work week (reports to write, papers to grade, meetings to attend, you get the picture), Dorothy Sayers’ Five Red Herrings and, in one Saturday-into-Sunday swoop, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. I didn’t think, going from one to the other, they had anything in common and they don’t, except attractive, blond, wiry, irrepressible protagonists and scenes of macabre or absurd humour.
I’m on a two-year best-laid plan to reread Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, Five Red Herrings (1931) followed one of my favourites, Strong Poison. Herrings is Vane-less, sadly, and contains a significant number of scenes sans Wimsey too; ONLY ONE HILARIOUS BUNTER SCENE, a tragedy, because we can never have too much Bunter.
I don’t care for the whodunnit variety of murder mystery: one murderee, an artist named Campbell, a hateful dude, truculent and dour, and five suspects, also artists, implicated in hating/resenting/plain-disliking Campbell. Set in a Galloway artists’ colony, Lord Peter Wimsey is taking a hol, doing some fishing (thank goodness he doesn’t seem to ever play golf), and solving a murder. Bunter is nonplussed by what the Scots call their cuts of meat and Sayers’ talent to draw character and write vernacular are brilliant. And yet, I didn’t love it. A paucity of Wimsey scenes and the detailed rendering of plottish points about who was where, which train they took, and who saw them when, take narrative precedence. (more…)
Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET
It has been a long time since I read literary fiction and the opening pages of O’Farrell’s Hamnet reminded me why: because of style over substance, meandering non-plots and vague characterization. Always, at the forefront, the author’s writing and never being able to be absorbed in, or by, the narrative. O’Farrell’s Hamnet proved me wrong; it was absorbing, moving, and contained sharp, delineated, compelling characterization.
I have loved William Shakespeare since the day my grade 7 teacher handed me a tiny, hard-bound copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have taught him every year of my more than 30-year teaching career and I have, with a few exceptions (sorry, Troilus and Cressida), read his plays and sonnets many times over. I have trekked with students and friends to the Shakespeare festival at our Canadian Stratford and watched, enthralled, characters who rave, rant, quip, orate, harangue, roar, bellow, pun, banter, declaim, sob, and sing. His language has always washed over me to say everything I fail to articulate.
I was scared O’Farrell would flatten Shakespeare to idealized genius, but I got something alive and interesting and much more than I wasn’t expecting. I knew going in that the novel would focus on Shakespeare’s son and play and I knew, from years of teaching, that his son had died, young, and that he wrote Hamlet some time after both his son’s and father’s deaths. But at the centre of Hamnet is the woman we know next to nothing about, except she was Shakespeare’s wife, bore him three children, lived apart from him until the last years of his life, and became his widow. (more…)
Reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A NEW HISTORY OF HUMANITY
I was immersed in Graeber and Wengrow’s brick of a book for the final week of my Christmas holiday. With a province once again locked down and curfewed and a low-grade pandemic-engendered melancholy, it nevertheless buoyed my spirits. Dawn of Everything is optimistic, ambitious, and convincing. It’s written with a populist bent I found headily accessible and likeable. I liked that the authors weren’t shy, or coy about their political leanings: left-wing, anarchist, and equal parts communal and humanist. (And I liked that they started out by pointing critiques at Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari; though I have respect for the latter, I have eye-rolling contempt for the former. If Pinker is quixotically positive about what he doesn’t recognize as our present predicaments, then Harari is beautifully, more temperamentally-in-tune-with-yours-truly pessimistic.) The “Davids”, as I’ve heard them called on various podcasts, are here to answer the question “why we’re stuck?” with the answer, “we’re not,” maybe qualified to “we don’t have to be,” and, though it takes them 700 pages to say so, the ride is fun, which doesn’t make it any less serious or scholarly. (more…)
I Read Lucy Parker’s BATTLE ROYAL
I have, of late, like Hamlet, lost all my mirth and romance seems stale and, dare I say it, puerile. I read one of my favourite contemporary romance authors, Lucy Parker, to get my romance-mojo back, her latest and first in a new series, Battle Royal. While there were aspects I loved, and it sustained my interest throughout, by the end, I was left with “meh, it was all right.” I loved the baking-rivals-turned-lovers, Dominic De Vere and Sylvie Fairchild, and it satisfied my great love for the The Great British Bake-Off, but it was 100 pages too long and unravelled in a disappointing way. (more…)
A Few Thoughts on a Maybe-Reread of Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1961)
In a single sitting, I recently read (reread? I’m not sure, I might’ve read it years ago, but have no memory of it, so it might as well be a first read) Muriel Sparks’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Sparks’s satiric take on the cult of personality. Said personality is, of course, Miss Brodie, and yet, by the end, though Sparks pokes, prods, and lampoons her eponymous anti-heroine, might there be a hint of redemption, a nod to Miss Brodie’s transformative power? I’m not sure. In many ways, Miss Brodie is detestable: arrogant, self-important, snobbish, a fascist. This final Brodie fact indicts her and is her downfall. (BTW, if you’re keen on not reading about Brodie with spoilers, I’d stop here.) (more…)
First Book of 2020: Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
Yes, you’re still with Miss Bates, romance-reader … but the first 2020 book I read was one that come-hithered me for weeks and it certainly wasn’t romance. Coupled with a new year’s resolution to broaden my reading horizons, given the coming election year for my southern neighbours and that Kakutani’s analysis clocks at 173 pages, I thought, this I can do. And I did, reading it with enough attention for it to resonate, in a few hours. In retrospect, I appreciated Kakutani’s connections to post-modernism and deconstructionist theory with the Trump phenomenon and our inability to navigate what is good, what is right, and what is true. I don’t think I learned anything new about Trump’s methods, or appeal that able political analysts haven’t already stated, but Kakutani’s positioning the former and latter within an interpretive model that elicits my unease made this a compelling read. (more…)
Barbara Pym’s “Little Lives” of EXCELLENT WOMEN (1952)
“And our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare’s The Tempest
The Bard’s wonderful reference to life and death, rest and completion went through my head reading Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. Though Pym’s novel is no memento mori, it is about the smallness of its characters’ lives, the “excellent women” of the margins, the spinsters who decorate the church altar, run the jumble sale, brew and serve the tea, butter the crumpets. They are the world’s unmarried, unloved, plain-Janes. Now I’m of the opinion the spinster’s life should be lived with élan and that is definitely lacking in Pym’s spinsters, “excellent women” though they be. There is nothing celebratory in the excellent women’s lives she depicts; though, at times, to give credit where it’s due, her women are acerbic, subtly angry, and embracing of their singlehood. The narrator’s voice, Mildred Lathbury’s, the main excellent woman, was too self-deprecating to satisfy this feral spinster. There were some wonderful moments when Mildred kicks against the pricks (pun intended) worth the mild annoyance with which I read much of Pym’s novel. (more…)
Part Two of An Abundance of Mysteries: Dorothy Sayers’s STRONG POISON
While I gallopped through Massey’s Widows and Griffiths’s Galloway #2 and 3, I trotted through Sayers’s Strong Poison, savouring her wit and stopping to chuckle and admire what Sayers did with a sentence. While the Bellona Club had me thinking about Sayers, the Great War, and the memento mori theme, A Strong Poison elicited a more emotional response (with memento mori lurking), fitting for a novel introducing the great love of Peter Wimsey’s life, Harriet Vane. To return to a comment I made in my previous post, about the interweaving of the detecting with the detective’s personal life, Strong Poison perfectly exemplifies this. As a matter of fact, I would say the mystery’s rational aspect, the working out of the crime thanks to the detective’s mind and abilities (except for the post-mo detective story, which I don’t read, which probably owes the crime’s solution/resolution to randomness, or “dumb luck”) is balanced by their personal lives. In Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love, at first sight, with the accused (of her lover’s murder no less). Wimsey’s detecting powers are at the service and mercy of his heart. A detective, amateur or otherwise, may be a person of honour, integrity, with a thirst for justice, but when these qualities are coupled with a personal, desirable love, then we have as perfect a mystery novel as Sayers’s Strong Poison.
A Few Notes on Dorothy Sayers’s THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB
Today, alternating reading with work tasks and making full-use of a quiet lunch hour, I finished Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club (1928). BTW, I’m rereading Sayers’s murder mystery series. Because I never read for plot and promptly forget it when I’m done, I might as well have never read it. What I did and do retain is Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s acerbic writing, and the feeling that everything is precariously tottering on the edge of tragedy. This post is by way of expressing some of my random thoughts while I read. I don’t spoil, so feel free to keep reading. I don’t summarize or review, therefore, these comments may only be of interest to someone who’s read and/or is interested in Sayers. Or not.
The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club centres around the murder of elderly General Fentiman, found deprived of his mortal coil when he spent too long snoozing in his usual chair at the Bellona Club, a London gentleman’s club. The first thing that struck me, and I don’t remember thinking about this when I first read the Wimsey mysteries, was the noise of The Great War in the background. Though the war has been long over, most of the characters, including Wimsey, live in its shadow, are yet haunted by the mud of the Somme so to speak, and carry the bitter, cavalier and frightening knowledge of witnessing death, feeling his breath on their napes. They are marked and Sayers’s novel is in turn marked by a macabre memento mori. The War, as Wimsey refers to it, is the great dividing line of before and after, what we were and what we’ve become because of it: “Wimsey said that nothing was what it had been; he thought it must be due to the War.” Wimsey’s diffidence marks all the characters; euphemism stands in for death, horror, evil, masked, out of fear, out of not-to-be-borne. (more…)