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Wednesday Fatal and Non-Fatal Attractions

What I've Finished Reading

Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby by Geoffery Wolff. Large and sympathetic but not too fulsome biography of a dismally prudish sybarite and one-man death cult who also managed to publish some important authors in the 1920s before shooting himself and a girlfriend in a hotel room. Nothing amazing, but full of interesting details if you're into those Lost Generation guys. Harry is something of an outsider: very rich, not overwhelmingly gifted, tiresomely obsessed with a complicated personal mythology - but he goes to a lot of parties and makes some friends and makes some nice-looking books.

And Herself Surprised. Sara gets to the end of this short book without ever feeling sure she knows herself, though she tries to be as frank as possible. As a very young woman working as a servant, she marries the older son of her employer, largely because she feels sorry for him, and later takes up with Gulley with mixed results. It’s very good! Unfortunately the edition I have is falling apart – it’s a paperback that seems to have fallen into a puddle or a bath at some point in its life, and mold is growing in the wrinkled bottom edge. But I’ll be keeping an eye out for a new (used) copy at the used bookstores, because it’s a keeper.

What I'm Reading Now

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated)

One of the drawbacks of trying to have honest reactions to books in public is that honesty can get pretty repetitive. In my heart, I have this hope that if I go on writing non-critical reactions for long enough, eventually an embryonic critical ability will begin to develop. Any random forty-second glance at Goodreads should be enough to strip me of this notion, but I live in hope as I live in ignorance. Anyway, it hasn't come to pass, and in the meantime, I end up saying a lot of the same things over and over. Notably: “Hey, guys! You know that famous proverbially influential thing that everyone learned about in school? SURPRISE, IT’S AMAZING. Who knew??”

Everyone knew! Everyone but me. But here I am again, to tell you the exciting news about Eugene Onegin, a wry and hilarious "novel in verse," completed in 1830, in which practically every stanza is a witty precis of some future novel.

But there’s no need that I dissemble
His illness – name it how you choose,
The English spleen it may resemble,
‘Twas in a word the Russian blues,
He spared us, true, one piece of folly;
Although he grew more melancholy,
Was bored with everything he tried,
He did stop short of suicide.
Soft glance, nor welcome sweetly caroled,
Nor cards, nor gossip, chased his gloom;
He’d stroll into the drawing-room
Surly and languid as Childe Harold.
A wanton sigh was not worth mention:
Nothing attracted his attention.

I have already been told several times that Onegin can’t be translated and it’s useless to try! This is probably true. From my standpoint of ignorance, though, this translation (by Babette Deutsch) is not just readable, but delightful in its own right, even if I’m missing 98% of what makes Onegin great and am now doomed to misunderstand Pushkin, and by extension all of Russian literature, forever. I hope it’s not quite that bad – but if it is, at least I had a good time.

What I Plan to Read Next

I don't know! I'm out of town for work and a little off-kilter when it comes to time, so I might just try to focus on Shirley.
What I've Finished Reading

Some of the stories in Chicks in Chainmail are still witty and fun, but the main source of enjoyment for me was as a window into the recent past. It has something of the same feeling of strained currency as "Uncle Charlie's Poems," (from the 1890s) and I'm not sure what it is that makes it feel strained rather than simply of its time. There's a lot of name-dropping of Hot Topics. Names dropped include: hacking, credit cards, the foster care system, ADD, divorce settlements, working mothers, Mel Gibson as heartthrob. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it - it was very relaxing weekend reading.

Also: Chicago by Gaslight, Samuel Paynter Wilson:

"Get Busy With Emily." Isn't that a picture for you! O, you praying fathers and mothers, how many of you have witnessed the performance of this nasty, suggestive, pig-pen show? How about your Emily, Mary or Martha, who is being dragged down by these immoral shows? It should be "Get Busy with Your City Officers."

This is an insubstantial expose of "vice" in all its forms, by a member of the Douglas Neighborhood Club, circa 1910. I couldn't tell at first whether it was a parody or not, but I think it's for real, just poorly written. The story he tells about a woman who almost escapes brothel life only to be thrown back by a nastily pious employer is genuinely affecting. Wilson uses it to encourage rich women to look out for their "fallen sisters," but doesn't let it dampen his enthusiasm for turning sex workers out of doors.

It was worth skimming, but apart from a few notes - like the intriguingly DISGUSTING and OBSCENE title of this musical comedy, and some rants about chop suey palaces and ice cream parlors (some of which may have served alcoholic drinks disguised as fancy milkshakes, if that wasn't just a fever dream of Wilson), it wasn't specific enough to keep as a reference book.

Did 1910 have vanity presses? I was trying to figure out why this insubstantial and vague-yet-extremely-local screed would be printed on such unusually good paper.

What I'm Reading Now

Herself Surprised by Joyce Cary is the fictional autobiography of Sara Monday, who appears in The Horse's Mouth as the woman Gulley had such a grand time beating in the old days. There’s a little bit of a Daniel Defoe homage here, since it’s narrated by Sara in the wake of her trial for theft, sometime after she became housekeeper to one of a series of hapless older men.

“Know thyself,” the chaplain says, and it is true that I never knew myself till now.”

Yet I thought I knew myself very well, and that I was humble enough, and I remember the first time I saw myself in my true body. [. . .] It stopped me dead with the blow. I knew I was not a beauty, but till that hour I had not seen myself with the world's eye. I had made a love of my nose, snub and broad though it was, and my eyes which were nothing but brown. Are not any eyes wonderful if you will look at them alone and forget the rest?

It's good. Sara's a narrator who is doing her best to sort out the mysteries of life for her interlocutors, but she's been awfully busy this whole time and you can't expect her to put everything aside for you, a stranger, when she could barely do right by the people she loved.

What I Plan to Read Next

MAYBE A Single Man and a glorious return to the 99 Novels list? Maybe something else.

All Murders Great and Small Monday

Crossposted to Dreamwidth as usual.

What I've Finished Reading

Aunt Dimity's Death develops into a very mild mystery with the help of a ghost - Dimity's spirit carefully preserves plausible deniability by communicating through written messages that only specific people can hear. She also subtly alters reality to make Lori a good cook for the first time in her life, and puts a rock in a cookie to break the tooth of a pompous ass, which I thought was a little much. Dude was severely pompous, but there was no real harm in him, and he was going to leave soon! I couldn't root for his tooth being broken. It would have been better to confront him with undeniable evidence of his factual errors or something, though I admit a rock in the cookie is easier.

How does she do it? The physics of being a ghost are not explored. The mystery is: what is the thing Dimity can't forgive herself for? The answer is: it was all a sad misunderstanding, and since consciousness persists after death in this book, everyone can reconcile in the afterlife and there's no harm done in the end.

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie: a thoroughly enjoyable short story collection. Parker Pyne is a detective of the heart, not the murder kind, though every now and then a murder interposes itself between Pyne and a peaceful vacation because that just can’t be helped. Every story includes Mr. Pyne’s intriguing newspaper advertisement:

Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne.

Pyne arranges adventures for people whose lives are too dull, and concocts predictable romance restoratives for listless marriages (only some of which backfire). Sometimes he gets people’s jewelry back for them out of complicated jewel thefts. I don’t know exactly how I should feel about the one where he solves a rich woman’s malaise by dumping her back in her class of origin. Probably a little critical!

Quite a few of the stories take place in the Middle East or Iran, probably reflecting archaeological trips she took with Max Mallowan. The snapshots of English tourism and travel abroad are always interesting, even if they breed some startling and downright bizarre stereotypes along the way. (How could it even it be true that “no Armenian would have the nerve to kill anyone”?) There’s a jewel theft on the Orient Express! There’s a doting rich American and his self-satisfied daughter. I sometimes wish Christie would stop lecturing harmless uxorious Englishmen about the importance of not being too nice to women, but you can’t have everything in this fallen world.

What I'm Reading Now

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammet!

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their rs give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Is this as great an opening paragraph as I think it is? Now that I type it out, there seems to be something a little clumsy and flat-footed about it. Raymond Chandler would have handled the same material and the same twist with more eccentric music. But it works, doesn’t it? Personville = Poisonville. The narrator thought it was a meaningless joke, but then he learned better. And of course the narrator is a character, himself a little clumsy and flat-footed but you can’t deny that he gets the job done. It’s not a pretty job! But it’s going to get done, whether you like it or not. The Continental Op isn’t here to weave metaphors at you. He’s here to point guns and take names, and maybe make some sense of this garbage scow of a town. Maybe, if there’s any sense to be made. No guarantees in Poisonville.

I like Red Harvest so far, but I have to keep reading chapters twice to figure out where we’ve gotten to from the last one, if anywhere.

One thing I like a lot: Dinah Brand’s sloppiness. She’s a femme fatale with a bad haircut who cannot keep her cheap stockings from snagging, for love or money. It just can’t be done. She’s gone through three pairs of stockings in as many days. Why do I love this detail? It's just a small persistent reminder of physicality, one of several that prevents Red Harvest from being a collection of words and poses. It feels like it's anchoring the story even though I'm still confused. What’s more real than runs in your stockings?

What I Plan to Read Next

Possibly Why Didn't They Ask Evans? if I can get to it in time.

Sponsored Post: Shirley (Part 0.5)

I owe osprey_archer a post about Shirley in exchange for a donation to the ACLU. This is not that post! I thought I would be able to burn through Shirley before I had to go out of town, but I can’t do it and still do justice to the book, which is very dense and deserves a lot more justice than I’m accustomed to providing. So I want to go through Shirley a little more slowly, but I also want to put something up before it gets too much later.
Yet even in those days of scarcity there were curatesCollapse )

There will be much more to say about everything soon, including a whole bunch of things I haven't even mentioned – or possibly not so soon; I'm about to hit a busy patch and can't guarantee anything for about the next three weeks. But I'll try to make it soon!

Be Careful What You Wish For Wednesday

As usual these days, crossposted to Dreamwidth.

What I've Finished Reading

The Maias isn't shy about being a story made of words, or a satire of Lisbon literary layabouts. The characters – at least the male characters – are bright but not deep, and the female characters are less bright and less deep. It may also be the least gothic incest story of the nineteenth century. We have four hundred-odd pages of bubbly club talk and overeducated emotion while the incest scenario gets set up (Maria and Carlos were raised separately; Carlos thinks his sister is dead and Maria never knew that she had a brother; they meet and are amazed by how well they understand each other! They even have the same middle name, what a cute coincidence! It must be destiny!) When Ega learns the horrible truth about his friend Carlos' mistress (entirely by accident; a friend of the family who knows Maria but hasn't seen Carlos in many years notices them walking together an remarks on it in all innocence) he agonizes over whether to tell his friend, tries to burden the family steward with the information, and finally breaks the news. Carlos is horrified for about fifty pages before he breaks it off with Maria and they go their separate ways. He weeps with bitterness, and the curse of the Maias is acknowledged.

Then, in the final fifty pages of the novel, the world slides back into alignment. A decade passes, and Ega and Carlos are back at the Grémio, gossiping and self-deprecating as if nothing had happened. The horror has lasted a few months at most; the long business of wasting one’s life extends beyond it into the future. Maria has made a perfectly respectable and boring marriage; Carlos has gone back to his relatively harmless wastrel existence, Ega still hasn’t finished that atom book and isn’t going to, but he’s definitely going to buy some clothes and complain that he spends too much on clothes. So the world keeps turning under the cursed and the charmed alike. I’m not completely sure what to make of this, but I think I like it.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't love The Ladies of Missalonghi at all. I disliked it so much that I felt bad about it and went back to try to find some things that I liked. I did find some - the history of the town of Byron (named after the first poet its founder could make heads or tails of), the description of Missy's medical examination, the line drawings) - but eventually I gave up and gave in to my dislike. You can read about it here if you want toCollapse )

I was disappointed in myself for not being able to enjoy this book on its own merits (or if not "enjoy," at least separate it from The Blue Castle enough so that I feel like I'm being fair), but I'm also not convinced that it's worth the effort to try again. Oh, well! Better luck next time, Australia.

What I'm Reading Now

I've started The Complete Works of Hadewijch, a present from several years ago, but I don't expect to get through it very quickly. Hadewijch is a thirteenth-century mystic whose works are letters exhorting friends to live in Christ, and poems about personal revelations - all well out of my comfort zone.

Also started: Chicks in Chainmail, a very 90s, very tongue-in-cheek comedy-fantasy anthology with a "warrior women" theme. There is a silly story about a man who dresses as a woman in order to be allowed to fight, and a silly story about the unforeseen consequences of a tax on metal bras. There is an extremely silly story about Hillary Clinton in Valhalla that made me so sad I couldn't follow what was happening, through no fault of 1994.

What I Plan to Read Next

Herself Surprised by Joyce Cary, probably some other things.
What I've Finished Reading

If I say that Murder on the Orient Express doesn't hold up as well on re-reading as Roger Ackroyd or Death on the Nile, I hope you all know I don't mean it in a bad way. Orient Express is an extremely efficient machine for producing a couple of very impressive experiences in the reader, and once that result has been achieved, you can only revisit the process from outside it. I don't mean "now it's ruined," any more than fireworks are ruined when you light them; some things are single-use on purpose.

A little more about thatCollapse )

I'll be going to see this movie, how about you? (One reasonable complaint I've heard so far: Poriot wouldn't indulge in the false modesty of calling himself "probably" the greatest detective in the world; there's no question about it and no other candidates to consider).

What I'm Reading Now

The Apple in the Dark (by Clarice Lispector) includes both murder and mystery but is not a murder mystery (even though it was shelved with the murder mysteries at the bookstore). Martim is an engineer who has either killed his wife or can't tell whether he killed his wife or not. In any case, he's escaping across the countryside at the beginning of the book. Isolation, heat, and thirst send him into the Lispector Zone, where every action and every inaction are equally painstakingly atomized and made strange.

Aunt Dimity's Death is a murder-free experienceCollapse )

What I Plan to Read Next

I feel like my plan to read all of Christie in order is having some disappointing results, not for me, but from the standpoint of anyone reading. I'm having a good time, but it seems like all my reports are coming out the same: twenty-odd variations on "Hah, Christie, you fooled me again and I liked it!" Any suggestions? Things you'd like to see? Questions I should answer? The next book on my list is Parker Pyne Investigates, a short story collection I know nothing about.
What I've Finished Reading

The Clan of the Cave Bear ends with a cliffhanger and a sample chapter from Jean M. Auel's latest, but I'm not biting. I don't regret the time I spend reading it, but I also don't know when I've been this disappointed in a novel for not being the long short story it was clearly meant to be. I definitely can't handle another 500 pages. There's a scene toward the end where Ayla and her guardian Creb drink a narcotic ritual beverage and share a vision of the far future - one in which Creb's people diminish and die and Ayla's overrun the world and make it strange. It's an ambitious piece of writing that ought to be a major turning point in the book, but isn't. Why isn't it? Because our disembodied National Geographic narrator has been following us around this whole time, reminding us every 50 pages that the Clan are doomed, using phrases like "evolutionary dead end" that are totally inappropriate to the setting and the mindset of the characters. By the time the news breaks into the story itself, it's been stale for days. It didn't do us any good to hear it all those other times, and now the big cool prehistoric sci-fi moment is spoiled. Oh, well.

What I Gave Up on Almost Immediately

The Raven Boys is pretty emphatically not my thing. I told myself I was going to give it a hundred pages before I took it back to the free book exchange, but I barely made it to 75. It has a good opening line ("It was freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrived.") but unfortunately there's a prologue in its way, and the rest of it was nothing but a chore. I hope whoever finds it in the free box next has better luck enjoying it.

What I'm Reading Now

The Maias by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz.

This is a large novel about Carlos da Maia, a wealthy young doctor who is doomed to sleep with his sister (I know this because the frontispiece told me right away, and now it's impossible not to see the pieces being put in place). But doom doesn't hang heavily on Carlos yet, unless it's the doom of never getting anything done - he's just come down from Coimbra to set up a consulting room and a laboratory, where he's going to dole out medical expertise while he works on a monumental history of the past and future of medicine - but his boudoir-like consulting room furniture doesn't excite respect, and the workmen are taking forever with the laboratory building, and his friends keep making fun of him and dragging him off to the Drones Club South to fling themselves on couches and wail about their mistresses. Meanwhile, his friend Ega (whom I'm pretty sure is a self-mocking self-insert of Eça de Queiroz, even though I don't know anything about Eça de Queiroz) is supposed to be turning his brilliant idea for a book into an actual book, and finding it considerably harder than either talking about the idea or buying and wearing eccentric clothes:

It was to be a prose epic, he declared, and would describe through a series of symbolic episodes the history of the great periods of the World and of Humanity. It was entitled Memoirs of an Atom, and was autobiographical in form. In the first chapter this atom (Ega's Atom, as it was called in all earnestness at Coimbra) was still roaming amid the cloudiness of the primitive nebulae [. . .] After that, as it voyaged through continual transformations of substance, Ega's atom entered the primitive structure of the orang-outang, the father of humanity, and later it lived on the lips of Plato. [. . .] Finding itself at last on the point of Ega's pen, and weary of its journey through Being, it rested as it wrote its Memoirs

It's pretty charming. I don't know what the eventual doomed incest is going to do to the charm, but I'm enjoying it so far.

Also Shirley by Charlotte Bronte - another sponsored post! That will go up at some point soon, if not this weekend, then shortly after.

What I Plan to Read Next

The Ladies of Missalonghi!

Monday Night Murder

"I do not play games. You know that. Murder is not a game. It is serious. And anyway, Hastings, you should not use that phrase -- playing the game. It is not said anymore. I have discovered that. It is dead. Young people laugh when they hear it. Mais oui, young beautiful girls will laugh at you if you say 'playing the game' and 'not cricket.'"

(Hastings is horrified that Poirot would read a suspect's letter upside-down as he was writing it. That's private! There is one kind of law for killing people and another for things that are just not done).

Lord Edgeware Dies was excellent! The following spoiler is not very specific, but I'm going to put it under a cut just in case.

[Skip this part and read Lord Edgeware Dies instead!]I can't believe that Christie pulled almost the same trick twice in a four-book period and I didn't even notice. That is, I can easily believe it, because 1) Christie is a genius, and 2) I'm far too trusting for the Murderverse. In retrospect, the misdirection that led me to dismiss my initial suspicion was too obvious for words, but what good is retrospect?


I love the letter the killer sends to Poirot post-conviction, but it's too much of a spoiler even for the spoiler cut. You'll just have to read it for yourself. For one thing, the letter-writer complains, isn't fair for Poirot to be so clever, when he doesn't look clever at all! This imposes a serious disability on the enterprising murderer. :( But I don't see how Poirot can look any cleverer when he already looks like exactly like HERCULE POIROT, the greatest detective! It's not his fault if you haven't done your research, murderers. Get it together!


What I'm Reading Now

We're up to 1934 in the Agatha Christie chronology! In 1934, Christie published two mystery novels, one Mary Westmacott, and two books of short stories. I should probably have saved Orient Express for last, but the library had it so I'm reading it now.

(1934 also brought us the first Inspector Alleyn novel! A Man Lay Dead is still uncertain early Alleyn, with Bolshevik anarchist cabals and out-of-character action sequences, but we've all got to start somewhere).

I think unlike Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express does lose a little on re-read, where I can see all the gears moving from the beginning - though it's hard for me to tell for sure, since I was spoiled for Ackroyd before I had the chance to read it, but not for Orient Express. If there is a difference, it's probably that Orient Express has an element of suspense that isn't part of the game in Roger Ackroyd.

. . . and this is the point at which my computer crashed, deleting all the extra commentary that I'd foolishly typed into the "update" box. Don't do that! There was something about atmosphere and a little more about re-reading and its effects. I'll put it back in next Monday, maybe. :\

What I Plan to Read Next

Red Harvest! Maybe Parker Pyne Investigates, maybe Aunt Dimity's Death, a cozy-looking mystery possibly involving a ghost?

The Wide, Wide Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

Confronted by such monumental configurations of nature the human eye is woefully inadequate. Who can say how many or how few of its unfolding marvels are actually seen, selected, and recorded by the four pairs of eyes now fixed in staring wonder at the Hanging Rock? Does Marion Quade note the horizontal ledges crisscrossing the verticals of the main pattern whose geological formation must be memorized for next Monday’s essay? Is Edith aware of the hundreds of frail starlike flowers crushed under her tramping boots, while Irma catches the scarlet clash of a parrot’s wing and thinks it a flame amongst the leaves? And Miranda, whose feet appear to be choosing their own way through the ferns as she tilts her head toward the glittering peaks, does she already feel herself more than a spectator agape at a holiday pantomime? So they walk silently towards the lower slopes, in single file, each locked in the private world of her own perceptions, unconscious of the strains and tensions of the molten mass that hold it anchored to the groaning earth: of the creakings and shudderings, the wandering airs and currents known only to the wise little bats, hanging upside down in its clammy caves.


Four girls and their teacher disappear from a school outing a few hours from their school. Two of them come back; neither one remembers what happened. The others are never found. The school falls apart and death and disaster climb over it like vines. Spooky and suspenseful, but also tongue in cheek: we are invited to laugh deprecatingly at the little green gardens and white gloves and the Hanging Rock Picnic Grounds and Appleyard College, perched delicately and self-importantly on the edges of a landscape that can’t help but swallow them up.

What I'm Reading Now

The Clan of the Cave Bear is so incredibly frustrating, I can’t even tell you. So many epithets! So much thesaurus abuse! So much repetition and clumsiness! I can’t believe Auel had her National Geographic narrator sail in to infodump all over the Clan’s first sighting of a mammoth herd, dropping a load of Cool Facts About the Mammoth Body Plan at our feet, literally three pages before the mammoth is butchered – which would have given her an iron-clad excuse to describe the subcutaneous fat, layered fur types, pelvic shape, and skull to her heart’s content. I can’t believe she described one of the mammoths as “the panicked pachyderm.”

I complain a lot about a book.Collapse )

Jean M. Auel: the M stands for missed opportunities. But I’m still reading because there are still things I like; if there weren’t, I wouldn’t be so mad.

What I Plan to Read Next

Picnic at Hanging Rock is Australia Book Number One; should I be lazy and count The Ladies of Missalonghi as number 2? The main virtue of the Ladies is that it kills two birds with one stone, since it also counts as a Mount TBR book (current count: 36 of 60).

On Sunday I dropped off some books at a free book exchange and found The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, the darling of my friends list a few years ago. It doesn't look tremendously appealing, but I'm just curious enough to read a free book if it's directly in front of me.

TV Tuesday: A Rare Doctor Who Update

Doctor Who is back! I've been trying to catch up on Classic Who by watching an episode a day. Some adventures in time and spaceCollapse )

The most recent series has also started - and I'm several episodes behind, as usual, but so far, so good. There's been a creepy living puddle, some creepy robots, a sad ice monster, and a sad creepy house. It feels like the writers are still figuring Bill out a little, but Pearl Mackie is extremely likable. I'm excited to see where it goes.

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