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Where Have All the Wednesdays Gone?

Regular posting has not resumed! I didn't finish anything this week but Catullus (Frank O. Copley's hip-and-with-it translation style couldn't cope with the Roman marriage song; Peter Green fared a little better) and I've begun The Making of a Saint, a historical romance by the young W. Somerset Maugham that Maugham later pretended not to have published. My feeling so far is that Maugham was right to be embarrassed. It isn't lurid or cheesy, just a little boring. Some Renaissance Italians have ill-advised intrigues and affairs, in what is supposed to be a memoir but doesn't read like one at all. Maybe it'll pick up!

I'm also reading A Girl of the Limberlost, which is still wonderfully weird, and about which I owe osprey_archer another post. A young man friend has been produced for Elnora, along with his straw fiancee. The fiancee's deficiencies are so heavy-handedly foregrounded every time she's mentioned that she has become my second favorite character out of pure spite. My favorite is still Kate Comstock, who could have instantly become less awful at any time, as it turns out, if not for one thing. . .but there will be more about that soon.

The Murder Who Wasn't Monday

Useless placeholder season is in full swing! Last week was a complete wash, except that I finished The Gentle Axe and got Enter Sir John in the mail. Enter Sir John is a theatrical murder mystery from 1928 that I've been meaning to read for a while; now that I finally have it in my house, I haven't managed to get around to it. The Gentle Axe was a thoughtful Dostoevsky remix with a surprisingly light touch - I don't mean that it was funny either in the way Crime and Punishment is funny or in its own way, because it isn't very. But it doesn't sweat and strain, and it doesn't drop research blocks in your path every few hundred feet. Porfiry Petrovich is a little subdued by comparison with the original - and so is every other character, including Saint Petersburg - but not trying to imitate Dostoevsky was probably a good bet on the whole.

This week may or may not be a complete wash. It remains to be seen.

The Unbearable Lightness of Wednesday

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

My wrists are messed up for reasons 99% unrelated to this journal, so this will be a short Wednesday Reading Meme. Regular posting will probably resume next week.

What I've Finished Reading

"Alcibiades I" and "The Symposium," two dialogues by Plato (translated into English), for the Alcibiades Book Club, which is not a real book club, just two people reading a bunch of books with Alcibiades in them. Alcibiades I is funny and charming but The Symposium is brilliant, even before Alcibiades crashes the party with a flower crown to deliver the most beautiful drunken speech about Socrates and throw everything into confusion. It's one of the best drunken speeches I've ever read.

(the origin of the Alcibiades Book Club: last Christmas I started reading Plutarch's life of Alcibiades in a used bookstore and found myself unable to stop)

What I'm Reading Now

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, more Catullus, more Girl of the Limberlost

What I Plan to Read Next

Books of some kind! Maybe A Single Man or maybe this very large History of the Peloponnesian War. But first I have to get through a thicket of work.

Murder and Mondayness

Cross-posted to Dreamwidth

What I've Finished Reading

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky! Raskolnikov, who used to be a law student in Saint Petersburg but now just lies around on his couch all day not drinking tea and wondering if he should kill this old pawnbroker he knows, finally decides to take decisive action! I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say it doesn't go as well as he'd hoped.

What I'm Reading Now

"I know, dear," said Miss Marple, "that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?"

"My dear aunt," said Raymond gently, "keep your beliefs. Heaven forbid that I should in any way shatter them."

"I mean," said Miss Marple, puckering her brow a little as she counted the stitches in her knitting, "that so many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly."

If I'd known that The Thirteen Problems was the same book as The Tuesday Club Murders I might have saved myself some trouble, but no worries! Raymond West starts a club for figuring out unsolved mysteries, but it's no fun because Miss Marple just guesses them all right away.

Sometimes there are jarring moments. I am sorry that Miss Marple feels the need to make digs at "that class" when she knows perfectly well that no class is immune from remembering things as more significant and exciting than they are once an officer shows up to ask questions about them. And it contradicts her running theme that people aren't really different from each other in the ways they think. But that just shows that I've internalized an ideal of Miss Marple that is a little freer from prejudice than the on-page Miss Marple; the same thing happened with Inspector Alleyn.

And at least one of the solutions is a little too Encyclopedia Brown-ish for me: she knows the man can't really have been a gardener, because gardeners never work on Monday! Well, maybe. But overall this is an excellent showcase for Miss Marple's uncanny talent for picking out the murderer in any room.

I finally started The Gentle Axe! It's pretty good. A tall man and a dwarf have been found murdered in a park, but nothing about the scene is exactly as it seems. Porfiry Petrovich, Crime and Punishment's investigating magistrate, annoys everyone by insisting on autopsies and following suspects around, smoking and blinking at them. Stylistically, it's not trying to do a one-to-one pastiche of Dostoevsky, which would almost certainly have been a disaster, but R. N. Morris has a good ear. Porfiry Petrovich and all of the characters are a little quieter and less grotesque than they are in Dostoevsky, which is probably advisable. Some of the Crime and Punishment callbacks feel a little too on the nose right now, even if my suspicion is correct and the nervous starving student turns out to be a red herring, but it's not hurting anything yet.

What I Plan to Read Next

The Hound of Death, another short story collection by Agatha Christie - which I couldn't find at first because I'd either written it down as "The Hand of Death" or wrote it down too sloppily to read again. Also hanging out in the waiting room (my floor): Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett and The Apple in the Dark by Clarice Lispector.
Cross-posted to Dreamwidth!

osprey_archer gave me a list of books to read in exchange for a donation to the ACLU, and A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter was one of them. You can also sponsor a post with a $10 donation, if you would like to find out what I think of any book. This is Part 1 because I'm only four chapters into A Girl of the Limberlost. Part Two will happen next week.

Elnora Comstock lives in the swamp with her sad, mad, bad mother Kate, who doesn’t want Elnora going to high school and doesn’t mind withholding important information (like whether or not you have to pay for books) in order to ensure that Elnora is extra humiliated on her first day. But Elnora is determined, even though her clothes are all wrong and she has to walk three miles to town. What's three miles? She walks all over the back country anyway, collecting moths and things; she might as well walk to the big stone high school and get an education. Elnora has some hopes of becoming a schoolteacher and using her specimens in the classroom. But her mother, who was a teacher herself before she was married and widowed in quick succession, has no patience for Elnora or any of her dreams.

Elnora hides her lunch in a box under the bridge so she won't have to carry it in an unfashionable pail, but she looks so outlandish anyway with her thick shoes and her long skirt that she might as well have taken the pail, too, and saved her lunch from being stolen. Her first day at school could have been a lot more awful – almost no one openly taunts her for her clothes, for example, though someone does change her name on the board from Comstock to Cornstalk – but it’s hard to have a sense of perspective when you’re sixteen. She learns that textbooks have to be purchased and there is an additional tuition of twenty dollars, and almost gives up. It's not so much the cost as the betrayal. Why didn't her mother tell her? Why did she trust her mother enough not to find out for herself?

On her way home, she meets her neighbors, Wes and Maggie Sinton, who have looked after her for many years and would really like to buy her some things for school, especially since their own children died young of diphtheria. Elnora’s principled stance against charity is frustrating here, and a little inconsiderate of Wes and Maggie, who would get as much enjoyment out of buying nice clothes for Elnora as Elnora would out of having them, and probably a little more. I have to cut her some slack because of her upbringing, but I hope at least part of this book will be about Elnora learning to accept gifts. It might not, though.

Then because she was a woman, she sat on a log and looked at her shoes.Collapse )

So far, so fascinating. I don’t particularly like Elnora – I feel bad for her and I feel impatient with her blanket refusal of “charity” (as a kid I would have accepted it as a virtue, but now I relate far more to the gift-givers) – but I don’t have much of a sense of her as a person. There are brief glimpses – when she sasses back to a high school student who is rude to her, then immediately reproves herself for making an enemy first thing, her aforementioned attempt to heap coals of fire on her mother’s head – but she’s not yet a vivid character. Nor, really, are Wes and Maggie – total sweethearts with sympathetic motives, yes, distinct people, not so much.

Kate stands out, mainly because she’s so unlike a book character, and so like an impossibly querulous person you might meet in real life: indifferent to your sympathy, impervious to life lessons or night-visiting ghosts, unbeautiful in her suffering except perhaps in her own mind. Will she learn to love again? Maybe, but I'm not sure how much it'll help. It's easy to embrace Ebeneezer Scrooge because he never had any children.

One thing I don’t know, because I’ve avoided looking at anything that might have spoilers in it: is this a sequel? We keep getting references to background characters and events that are not explained. “Across the fence and field, along the old trail once trodden by a boy’s bitter agony, now stumbled a white-faced girl, sick at heart.” What boy? There’s no further or previous mention of him, unless it’s the “Freckles” from whom Elnora inherited her shed and whose story “we all” are supposed to know, according to Elnora’s conversation – her dead father Robert? Maybe it will all be explained later, but that abrupt and mysterious “boy” suggests an ongoing series of Limberlost Adventures in Capitalism. We’ll see! (maybe).

Too Late the Wednesdaymeme

Now cross-posted to Dreamwidth!

What I've Finished Reading

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene. I don't know why I liked this little book so much when the other two Greenes left me cold. Maybe because the main character's sexual relationships are all in the past, so I can't hypocritically turn up my nose at his Human Weakness (TM). Maybe because he isn't self-pitying and is instead beset by irritating neighbors who keep trying, against his wishes and despite his efforts, to make him a figure of sympathy, or worse, of veneration. Querry used to be an architect, but it was no good; he used to design new churches but people kept spoiling them by dragging in all the tacky old Catholic paraphernalia he was trying to bypass, and anyway he doesn't believe in God anymore. He came to this leper colony to try to make himself useful, now that he doesn't believe in anything, but no one believes in his disbelief and it all ends badly. It's probably some kind of stealth Greene trick to make me look at my failings that whether or not I like his books depends so heavily on how much I "like" or "can relate to" his central sinner, buy that's all right, it's all part of the game. You got me, Graham Greene! Thumbs up to you.

Lions and Shadows - Christopher Isherwood's autobiography with made-up names, because autobiographies are necessarily fictional so you might as well own it. It's completely delightful. Isherwood spends a tremendous amount of time embroidering a private fantasy world with his particular friend, then decides to get himself expelled from Cambridge: it's easier and more interesting than studying for the first big round of exams, besides which his particular friend is leaving and he'll be miserable and bored. His plan is to burn out spectacularly by writing inflammatory joke essays, which turns out to be just as much effort as doing the exams for real. No satisfying infamy results; it just makes his tutor confused and disappointed. Then he lucks into one of those exploitative and familial art-world jobs (secretary to a musician) and spends even more time trying to figure out a way to turn the folie a deux that has occupied so much of his mental energy into a book that other people might want to read. Eventually he gives up and writes a different book instead, which is panned and forgotten and later remembered vaguely as having shown some promise.

What I'm Reading Now

A Girl of the Limberlost, by special request of osprey_archer - I will post something about it Friday or Saturday.

Gaius Valerius Catullus: The Complete Poetry (translated by Frank O. Copley) and The Poems of Catullus translated by Peter Green. I can't tell you how much I love this asshole Catullus. He's a first century BCE Roman poet with nothing better to do than hurl insults at everyone who ever slept with his girlfriend or said his poems were garbage. He flails wildly between painful tenderness and pitiful self-centered petulance, he mocks his friends for sending him bad poems and threatens to send them worse poems in retaliation, he knocks the furniture around like Citizen Kane, he makes jokes about dudes sucking their own dicks.

If Catullus were a contemporary of mine there is a good chance I might not love him as much. Maybe I would read a few pages of his shit-flinging and think, "Dude, you are talented but you are not for me," and go read a nice cozy murder story instead. Certainly if he were transported into the present with his first-century Roman sexual politics intact, he would be a nuisance at best. But he wrote all these poems two thousand years ago, and thanks to a long series of choices and accidents they still exist, and they are startlingly, hilariously alive.

Frank Copley's translation is beautifully weird and very loose; he totally ignores the original line breaks, throws in contemporary (1954) references and generally strives to create a hip beatnik lounge atmosphere. At first I just thought it was funny, but it grew on me fast. Green's translation is more of a translation in the traditional sense, and includes the original Latin on a facing page. Copley would like us to feel that Catullus is one of us, despite the centuries and the language barrier; Green wants to make sure we don't forget how alien he is, and to prevent us from being fooled by superficial points of common interest like sex and insults. Probably they are both right.

What I Plan to Read Next

Lots of book recs from other books! I recently bought Travels With My Aunt, which was recommended to me last year as The Graham Greene You Will Like If You Didn't Like Any of the Other Ones. I hope it will still work given that I liked A Burnt-Out Case. When I saw A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood at the bookstore, I immediately bought it on the strength of Lions and Shadows, and came home to find that it was one of my 99 Novels.

I learned from Among Others that Mary Renault wrote a novel about Alcibiades called The Last of the Wine. Alcibiades is either my favorite or my second favorite Plutarch's Life (so far), so I should probably read this soon. There may be some other Alcibiades-related reading in the near future.

The Sleep of Monday Produces Murder

What I've Finished Reading

Death of an Expert Witness by P. D. James. This book is neither funny nor suspenseful, but it has a pleasant pace and a reasonably good style. We get a tour of all the people who might want the victim dead, and then the corpse - a different corpse from the corpse that opened the book, this one is the titular expert witness. He's got secrets; they've all got secrets. Some of the secrets are painful and embarrassing in a mundane way and some of them are gothic. They are collected by a pair of perfectly serviceable professional detectives whom it is not necessary to tell apart. In conclusion, living is awful and death is tedious and humiliating. It was all right! I'm glad I was able to finish a P. D. James again, and maybe one day I'll read another one.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell takes a very different approach to life and death. This is the kind of book I thought all mysteries were going to be when I first started reading mysteries: a tongue-in-cheek puzzle-comedy about the leisurely pursuit of justice over assorted liqueurs. A hapless young lawyer goes on vacation to Venice and accidentally winds up with a corpse in her bed, but her friends back in London know she's far too clumsy to have killed a man. Luckily, they are able to figure out what happened by reading her letters to one another at their favorite bar. These friends all talk alike to the point of being basically indistinguishable, but there's never any real need to distinguish them so it doesn't matter. The constant impenetrable archness could easily go wrong, but I don't think it actually does. It's a lot of fun.

What I'm Reading Now

Began Common Murder, an earlier Val McDermid than Conferences Can Be Murder - here Lindsay Gordon's dead girlfriend is still alive, and an ex-flame has just turned up disconcertingly. I hope this doesn't mean we're in for a love triangle. As Matthew Arnold once said, "All this murder is bad enough."

What I Plan to Read Next

Christie time again! I got The Thirteen Problems from the library (the one I'm going to have to order is The Hand of Death, which doesn't seem to be anywhere). And Crime and Punishment, an old favorite - I'm re-reading it because I'm finally going to get to The Gentle Axe.

What Fools These Wednesdays Be

What I've Finished Reading

I liked Among Others a lot more than I expected to like it in the beginning, which was the opposite of my experience with The Just City. Mor has to choose between joining her dead sister in the world of the fairies and going back to her living boyfriend and their book club, then finds that she's already made the choice. The odd pacing and messy verisimilitude justifies itself in the end.

There is one strange scene toward the beginning of the book in which Mor's dad (whom she hasn't seen since she was a baby) gets drunk and tries to get in bed with her. Mor records this in her diary, then tries to normalize it with a couple of paragraphs about how there's probably nothing wrong with incest in principle, and she would like to be touched, but it just wasn't for her. Then Daniel goes back to being a normal well-meaning but awkward dad and the incident is never mentioned again. If I had to guess, I'd say that Walton includes these scenes of sexual threat (this one, the rapes in The Just City) because they're part of life and it would be dishonest to leave them out of a story just because the story also has fairies or time-traveling Greek gods. I find this admirable in theory but I also resent it a little.

This is a book that looks like it's going to be escapist comfort reading (young outsider loves books and talks to fairies!) but refuses from the start to conform to expectations. The magic in particular is a confusing, difficult and isolating obligation, like taking care of a sick relative. It can be beautiful - as in the understated final confrontation - but so can anything, once it's written down.

I didn't feel as much love and pain with A Fox Under my Cloak as I have for the others in the Henry Williamson sequence, but I don't know if it's because it's a weaker book or just because wars are less interesting than growing up. The war stuff isn't uninteresting to begin with, but it's starting to feel a little familiar, all the coat lice and bully beef and commanding officers who aren't all they're cracked up to be - which isn't fair of me at all.

What I'm Reading Now

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene. Here I am, reading Graham Greene when I don't even have to - I don't know what's happened to me. It's short and it was in the free books bin at the used media superstore (along with a beautiful vintage edition of The Victim by Saul Bellow), and it's great so far; there's a guy on a boat who can't relate to anyone who laughs or enjoys a game of cards, and we don't know exactly why he's feeling so burnt out but this is Graham Greene we're talking about so some educated guessing is possible.

Also: it's time to read some poetry! Body Switch is a new book of poems by Terri Witek and it's pretty good. I know how to talk about poetry even less than I know how to talk about paragraphs, but I love the comment on the Portuguese title of Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet: Livro do Desassossego:

an SOS hisses through the last gorgeous word (can our eyes take it in?) as if a person couldn't decide whether to ask for help or fall asleep.

I know that feeling! Maybe you do, too.

What I Plan to Read Next

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood, maybe Portnoy's Complaint if I get to it.

Murder is the Reason for the Monday

What I've Finished Reading

The Return of the Continental Op is five short stories by Dashiell Hammett , told by and about a nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency. I really like Hammett’s first person here: short punchy similes, sardonically understated re-statements, “I lied” as dialogue tag. The Op is at his best when he’s castigating criminals, or watching them castigate each other, for being shit at crime. It’s a very specific form of satisfaction. In one story, he gets through twelve perfectly good reasons for why the elaborate set-up was a bad plan from the start before deciding he’s too thirsty to keep going. It usually happens some time after the Op has suffered some bodily trauma, since the Op gets knocked out constantly. Knocked on the head and thrown into the Bay, knocked on the head and beaten half to death, just plain knocked on the head. My Dell paperback edition (complete with crime map on back cover) is falling apart in my hands, and so cheaply printed that some of the pages have a blurry 3-D effect, so I won’t be keeping this one around, but it’s no fault of Dashiell Hammett’s.

Peril at End House was almost too overstuffed with Poirotisms, but what am I talking about? There's no such thing. Is there? Apparently I'm of two minds. On the one hand, it gets laid on a bit thicker in this book than in some of the others. On the other - well, the other hand is just the same sentence with "and it's great!" appended. Hastings and Poirot bicker about breakfast and modernity; Hastings takes great pleasure in describing the peculiarities of his friend to outsiders. This one is fast, fun, and a little crazy, but in the best Agatha Christie tradition rather than the worst. Nick Buckley, the hapless "modern" near-murder victim who charms Hastings and dismays Poirot with her disorderly ways, is a standout character from beginning to end. In the end, the mystery grows so dense that only a fake seance can dispel it. When in doubt, hold a fake seance!

What I'm Reading Now

I've started P. D. James' Death of an Expert Witness. I've read two P.D. James books a while ago, which I admired but didn't quite love - James leans more toward the disquieting end of the puzzle-horror continuum and -- I was about to say I like my murder stories to have less in common with actual murder, but that isn't always the case. I tried to read a couple of other books by James off and on, but wasn't able to keep my attention on them for some reason. I'm guardedly optimistic about this one.

It starts with a late-night call to a forensic pathologist, who reflects briefly on his unhappy middle age before setting off to work. Then the pathologist's daughter reflects a little on her parent's unhappy marriage. That's a lot of unhappiness for the first ten pages, when we haven't even met the corpse yet. But I like this pathologist. He couldn't hack it as a doctor for the living, so he's trying to do his best by the dead.

What I Plan to Read Next

It's all a mystery! Either Christie or not-Christie, depending on whether the library has Thirteen Problems. I keep forgetting to check.
Do you like throwing money at seemingly insuperable problems? Do you also like telling people what to read? If the answer is yes, why not sponsor a book review today?

In exchange for a $10 donation to the Syrian American Medical Society, Doctors Without Borders, or the ACLU, I'll read a book of your choice and write a whole post about how I feel about it, OR write a short fanwork in response. For fifteen dollars or more, I'll do both! This could be an incredible bargain if your expectations aren't too high.

Only have $5 to spare? For $5, I'll read the back cover (or equivalent) and make up a reasonably plausible book report as if I were a thirteen-year-old with better things to do.

Some other things I could write about if you wanted:
- Websites
- Podcasts
- Music
- Fanfic
- a single issues of a magazine (literary or otherwise)
- . . . maybe other things, too? Suggest it and see!

If you'd like to play, just comment here or at Dreamwidth, drop me a PM, or send an email to lisboalight@gmail.com. No book too bad, no book too good. I'll even do weekly updates if the book is too long to read in a short time.

(No pressure, either, of course - like I said, I suspect a lot of people are all donated out right now. I've run out of money myself, hence the fundraising attempt).

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