Tag: Fiction

Having Read Sayers and Greer

Five_Red_HerringsWhen 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

HamnetIt 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…)

Barbara Pym’s “Little Lives” of EXCELLENT WOMEN (1952)

“And our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Excellent_WomenThe 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, and butter the crumpets. They are the world’s unmarried, unloved, plain-Janes. Now I’m of the opinion that 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) that were worth the mild annoyance with which I read much of Pym’s novel. (more…)