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Wednesday is for Reading

What I've Just Finished Reading

My public library's most circulated book -- The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. I hated it for the first hundred pages, was guardedly interested for another hundred or so, and then hated it all over again in the last few paragraphs.

I think if I'd read the dust jacket flap before starting it and learned that it was a "family recovers from adultery" story, I might not have read it at all. I don't automatically hate stories where a middle-aged professional man sleeps with a very young woman in order to feel young again, but they have no intrinsic appeal for me, and quite a lot of intrinsic anti-appeal: I need to have a lot of confidence in the narrator. Telling me "he found himself inside a new mouth" and now he's feeling sad isn't going to be enough for me. None of the characters really grabbed me for a long time (Franny's love of food was the one exception), though a couple of them come into their own a little later. The conclusion felt pat and unearned.

The thing that pushed me from mild to active dislike didn't become clear until I'd read the whole book. The young woman Jim sleeps with (an intern at his magazine) is never allowed to be a character. She's eventually given a name (Madison) but she appears only in flashbacks and only as a flat fantasy personification of youth. The only really vivid description of her is a description of her genitals, accompanied by a handful of generic hotness markers for hair, skin, and thighs. She might have one line of dialogue, but I can't remember anything about it. Late in the book, Jim describes her as an illusion he foolishly allowed to become real, and the rest of the family tacitly agrees to think of her as a hallucination in which Jim regrettably chose to indulge.

All that is perfectly plausible, if a little icky. I don't mind that the book depicts Jim et al. as thinking this way, but I do mind that the narrative never does anything to complicate that picture. We never get a glimpse of Madison as a person, or any clue to why she found her sixty-year-old boss so sexually compelling, and so as far as the book is concerned she is a hallucination. I know this is the story of Jim's family and not the story of Madison, but it wouldn't have hurt anything to let Madison be a real person for ten seconds. The fact that Jim's similarly-aged daughter Sylvia is one of the best-drawn and most sympathetic characters in the book made the omission feel even worse.

It's possible that I just missed it because it was too subtle for me. The Vacationers has some nice moments, most of them in the second half, when everyone is having revealing conversations with everyone else. In addition to Franny's love of food and the character of Sylvia, I liked Carmen, the only character who really seemed to have a meaningful connection with her job, even if everyone else in the family is a collossal snob about it. I probably won't be looking for any more books by Emma Straub for now, but I will try the "most circulated" list again next month to see what else the waves of popularity bring me.

What I'm Reading Now

Murder tourists came from all walks of life. As late as 1828, Walter Scott recorded in his journal that he and his companions travelled out of their way to visit Gill's Hill Lane and do the circuit. After taking in the lane and the ponds, they went on to the cottage itself, now partially dismantled, and were shown around by a 'truculent looking hag' for 2s.6d. Five years after the event, the 'hag' cound ask, and receive, nearly a week's pay for a workman.

I've just started The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders. It's extremely enjoyable, full of illuminating details, and very clearly written. I'll probably have more to say about it in the future, but I'm already planning to read her other books on Victorian England.

And I got an earlier Ngaio Marsh, Artists in Crime, to try. The edition carried by the university library is an older hardcover (actually, it looks like it might be a first edition) and the red dye from the cover has been coming off on my hands and making them look wounded.

It's earlier in the series than the two I read previously, so I know that one of the artist characters, Agatha Troy, will eventually also be Inspector Alleyn's wife (having a wife is one of Alleyn's few and precious traits). It makes me a little sad that she doesn't have more to do in those later books, because I like her in this one -- and I have just been informed that she is a POV character in a few books, so I will be checking those out next if I don't decide to just read the series from the beginning.

Artists in Crime follows the same pattern as A Wreath for Rivera in that there's a longish establishing sequence setting up the initial group of survivor-suspects before the murder takes place, and an elaborate murder with elements of performance and illusion. So far, I like it. The artist colony setting is fun, with lots of catty shop talk and physical detail, and the artists are not as unkindly delineated as the unkindly delineated musicians in A Wreath for Rivera, though one character is repeatedly described as a "successful nymphomaniac." I've just gotten to the part where everyone's story starts to crumble in the face of Alleyn's impacable politeness, and I'm looking forward to seeing what horrible things fall out next.

What I Plan to Read Next

I haven't given up on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, though it has been moderately slow going. I'm more interested in getting to The Untelling, which I still have out from the library. I'd also like to start on something from my Water Damage Club, though I'm not sure which one I want to read first -- the shortest one? Or the longest?

Actually keeping track of what I read has made me realize how badly scattered my reading habits are.

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