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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.

Murder at the Matinee Monday

What I've Finished Reading

So I knew there was going to be some vintage bigotry in Enter Sir John, but it's mostly fairly subtle in the first half of the book. Thus I was completely unprepared for the nature of the HIDEOUS SECRET that Martella Baring heroically risked her own life to conceal, and which drove the real murderer to start smashing people's heads with a poker in the first place.

[SPOILERS for the entire plot of Enter Sir John!]

”In love with him?” cried Martella wrathfully as the accusation with all its implication soaked well into her consciousness. “Why, you must be lunatic – completely lunatic!”

“Why must I be a lunatic?” demanded the owner of the Sheridan.

“But the man’s a chi-chi,” said Martella, with her air of ‘Heaven give me patience!’

“Chi-chi?” broke in Trenny Rice clutching his head.

“Half-caste – a Eurasian,” said Sir John quickly; and Martella added kindly, indulging his ignorance:

“It doesn’t show. At least – you wouldn’t notice. But if one’s lived in India– ”

The horror! Anyway, it turns out Martella was also conked on the head by a poker, and that’s why her head hurt and she couldn’t remember anything, and she heroically refused to name the guy at her trial because “mud sticks” and presumably learning about his mixed heritage would spoil his chances as a leading man (among "people who count"). Would it have? Maybe, maybe not. But when Sir John tricks the murderer into confessing (by inviting him to read for his own part in a play based on the murder), he reveals that his motive was only to prevent Martella from learning the truth:

”It was because I loved her, and because of a look I saw in her eyes once when a lascar brushed against her in the street. She can’t help the feeling. She was born in India. She was brought up to look at us – so! But I love her. And if ever she’d looked at me – so! one of us would have died. As it was, that poor meddling fool of a woman died instead. She’d have let her know; and I’d rather she hanged than knew. Yes, when it came to that, I was ready to let her hang rather than let her know.”

Even apart from the frank racism of the heroine and the heavy-handed racial self-hatred of the killer, as a mystery it’s just ok. The idea of a famous theater manager buying his way into a criminal investigation by promising jobs to all the principal witnesses is entertaining in theory, but Sir John is more of an idea for a character than a character, and that goes double for most of the survivor-suspects. Martella Baring is a character - an absolute nightmare for the defense, who regards everything about the trial with contempt, sighs irritably at all questions, flatly refuses to provide important information, and reacts with scorn to any attempt to commute her sentence when she'd just as soon be hanged and have it over with. But given that the entire plot turns on her racism, and the narrative largely excuses it, I don't think she's likely to become a reader favorite.

So it was an interesting book to read, but it’s not hugely surprising that it’s fallen out of print. I'm sure the introduction will be worth reading if it ever gets the British Library Crime Classics treatment, though.

What I'm Reading Now

Lord Edgeware Dies begins with an actress attempting to hire Poirot to help her get rid of her husband, the eponymous Lord Edgeware. No, not kill him - though really it would be more convenient if he did die - but just convince him to divorce her so she can get on with her life. Will she turn out to be the killer, or would that be too obvious a twist? So obvious it just might work? Christie's good at making you think she won't do things and then doing them. Anyway, it's perfectly breezy fun with Poirot and Hastings. As usual, Poirot's presence attracts a lot of gruff or anxious people with something not quite right about them - always the first sign of a murder brewing.

What I Plan to Read Next

Orient Express, maybe Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, maybe something else!
One last post!

The death of the swamp in A Girl of the Limberlost is emotionally unobtrusive, part of the background albeit always part of the background, and no one laments it or tries to stop it from happening – it’s just a fact of the setting. Elnora looks up from her busy schedule one day and realizes it's almost gone. She needs money for college, but she can no longer count on finding moths to sell:

Men all around were clearing available land. The trees fell wherever corn would grow. The swamp was broken by several gravel roads, dotted in places around the edge with little frame houses, and the machinery of oil wells; one especially low place around the region of Freckles’ room was nearly all that remained of the original. Wherever the tress fell the moisture dried, the creeks ceased to flow, the river ran low and at times the bed was dry. With unbroken sweep the winds of the west came, gathering force with every mile and howled and raved, threatening to tear the shingles from the roof, blowing the surface from the soil in clouds of fine dust, and rapidly changing everything. From coming in with two or three rare moths in a day, in three years’ time Elnora had grown to be delighted with finding two or three. Big pursy caterpillars could not be picked from their favorite bushes, when there were no bushes. Dragon-flies would not hover over dry places. . .

After high school, Elnora gets a job teaching supplemental natural history courses for grade schools around the region. There’s an ecstatic scene in which she and her mother work out lesson plans, figuring out the best form of life to focus on for each month. It’s delightfully odd, like all the best parts of this book, and it’s also sad: this new program will teach children about the local ecosystem just as it’s being changed into something else entirely. The Limberlost swamp was a real place and it really did vanish, drained and cleared and smoothed over into a broad green and yellow patchwork of farmland and oil wells.

This is not a story about thatCollapse )

One thousand thanks to osprey_archer for sponsoring this wonderfully weird, flawed but fascinating book! I might never have gotten around to reading it otherwise, and my life would have been a little poorer for it, like all those benighted suckers who smash moths in ignorance and/or leave creepy notes in other people’s sheds.

Sweet Dreams are Made of Wednesday

As always these days, crossposted to Dreamwidth

What I've Finished Reading

"Women are strange little beasts," he said to Dr. Coutras. "You can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your arm aches, and still they love you." He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, it is one of the most absurd illusions of Christianity that they have souls."

A version of this quote from The Moon and Sixpence was used in the movie poster - but instead of the remark about souls, it concludes that "in the end they get you and you are helpless in their hands," which is all wrong - no one ever "gets" Charles Strickland. After twenty years of perfectly ordinary life as a mediocre stockbroker, he decides to become a painter and to forgo all sense of social obligation forever. He leaves his family for Paris and never thinks of them again. In Paris he makes some paintings, is rude to his benefactors, breaks up a marriage, and flatly refuses to consider anyone but himself. Eventually he moves to Tahiti, settles down, paints a lot, and dies of leprosy - but not before making sure his mural-covered house is burned down, as a final "fuck you" to all those annoying sheeple who kept trying to buy his paintings, like idiots. Screw those guys!

Other people are the worst!Collapse )

I enjoyed this book a lot. It's hard not to compare it to The Horse's Mouth, also about an asshole who paints pictures, and I don't think it's at all a great book in the same way, but it moves quickly and is full of quiet earnest epigrams, and it has that appealing ambiguity of intent that the good Maugham books have - that is, I never feel like I know exactly what the author thinks of all this, in spite of the best efforts of a frank and forthcoming narrator.

What I'm Reading Now

I don't know if Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear is any good or not. I'm leaning a little toward "not," but I'm interested to see where it'll go, and I think the attempt is admirable even if the execution is a little clumsy and heavy on the infodumps. Somewhere in the very distant past, a small child is separated from her family by an earthquake. She follows the river in search of help or food, gets mauled by a mountain lion or similar, and is eventually nursed back to health by the Clan, who are either Neanderthals or not Neanderthals - or maybe the child is a Neanderthal and they're the other one. Anyway, they're shorter and darker than her own people, suspicious of the odd-looking outsider but willing to help.

The infodumping is sometimes very jarring. I don't expect a book about cave people to use only language reflecting the knowledge and beliefs of cave people - we don't have any examples, for one thing, and this is a book written in 1980, for 1980. But when our new clan arrives on the scene, we get a lot of talk about "supraorbital ridges" and other skull-shape jargon. This is both too much and not enough. The transition between the POV of the characters and the POV of an author who has just got back from the natural history museum with an armful of new books is not always graceful. But it's possible that either Auel or I will get used to it eventually.

What I Plan to Read Next

I now have Picnic at Hanging Rock, a book from Australia! and also The Maias by Eça de Queiroz, which can be one of my books from Europe. I haven't forgotten my continents challenge, even if it seems like I have.

All the World's a Murder Monday

What I've Finished Reading

The Hound of Death was a great collection of short stories, about 2/3 spooky unexplained events and 1/3 cynical humans being cynical. Some of them are excellent, and some are just fun. I'm predisposed to enjoy Christie whenever she stretches her muscles (or doesn't, for that matter), so I would probably have enjoyed this walk on the spooky side even if the stories had been less well-constructed in general. One man fakes a haunting in order to cause his aunt's death, another is changed into a cat, for some reason, but gets better. There's a case of possession and a seance gone horribly wrong, and a few other things besides. "The Call of Wings," about a rich man who changes his life after hearing mysterious music, is an interesting experiment in inspiration.

What I'm Reading Now

Enter Sir John by Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane:

She crossed to the witness-box, self-possessed, but with eyes a little puzzled, that opened wide to take in the court from this new angle. A watcher in the gallery admired her every pose. Breeding! thought this watcher. It tells; guilty or innocent, it tells.


Despite some unseemly concern for "breeding" and its tales, Enter Sir John is not bad. The prose is brisk rather than witty and the theatrical cast is not quite as memorable as any of Ngaio Marsh's companies - which isn't really fair, and besides, there's time yet. A young actress was overheard in a heated argument with the wife of the manager; a short time later the wife was found dead, her head bashed open with a poker. Martella Baring, the actress, can't remember a thing so she supposes she must have killed poor Magda and there's nothing to be done about it. Things look pretty black for the ingenue, but maybe not everything is as it seems? Sir John Saumerez, nee Simmonds, is a successful actor-manager who takes an interest in Martella because he met her once in an audition and thought she had potential. Can he apply the technique of his art to the problems of daily life, and succeed where the defense failed, despite being a nosy outsider unconnected with the case in any way? Since this is a book, the answer is probably yes. After resolving to overturn Martella's conviction, Sir John repeats the phrase "It isn't as if I were in love with her," three times in as many pages and fantasizes about casting her as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. This can't be helped, I guess; there's no aphrodisiac like a murder charge.

Best things about this book so far: the street on which the murder takes place - populated with drowsy and irritated witnesses who are too put out by all that noise in the middle of the night to process what they might be witnessing - and the totally unmethodical and irrational jury whose deliberations are given a whole chapter to themselves.

What I Plan to Read Next

More Christie, probably! It's time for Lord Edgeware Dies, which I haven't read but which has a nice matter-of-fact title, and then MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which was so good that it changed my life! though probably not in any immediately useful way.

You're Shaking My Confidence Wednesday

What I’ve Finished Reading

The Making of a Saint was mostly very dull. There were a couple of good scenes – the captured countess calling the conspirator’s bluff when they threaten to hang her children, an unoriginal but lively description of a Renaissance marketplace – but for the most part it failed either to rise to art or melt into cheese. Somerset Maugham’s running theme of intelligent but weak-willed guys chasing faithless women all over creation only to be heartbroken when they go on being the same person as before, gets an airing here, though not a very energetic one. If it comes back to haunt me for two weeks running like The Razor’s Edge did, I’ll let you know, but it doesn’t seem likely today.

Between Maugham and Gaius Valerius Catullus, I've had "Cecilia" stuck in my head for the past week. The good news is, it's a good song, and thanks to a few miracles of technology, you can hear it, too.

I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed someones taken my placeCollapse )

What I’m Reading Now

Uncle Charlie’s Poems – Mirthful and Otherwise by Charles Noel Douglas, 1906, J. S. Oglive Publishing Company. A collection of light verse by Charles Noel Douglas, an actor who turned to writing to support himself through a chronic illness. He seems to have been extremely prolific despite his “obscure nervous trouble,” and successful enough to move out of the public hospital and into a house in Brooklyn – from the presentation of this book, the human interest story of his illness seems to have helped at least a little. There is a photograph of “Uncle Charlie,” with his oddly immaculate Van Dyke beard and neutral gaze, flanked by a couple of adorably modern-looking young nurses. In the back are four pages of advertisements for Uncle Charlie’s other books: stories, songs, plays for adults and children, and a compendium of quotations called The Lover’s Companion.

These poems are of an age, not so much for all time. Multiple poems about “Sandy Claws” who is importuned for a comically long list of toys with the repeated hook DON’T FORGET THE GUN! or who causes temporary consternation by being seen to wear “Pa’s” grubby pants, plenty of comical domestic violence and mercenary courtship, all in meter like the rattle of a noisy automobile.

From the author's introduction: “If the mirth-seeker finds nothing laughable in the so-called humorous verse, perhaps in the section devoted to the more serious subjects he may discover sufficient excuse for indulging his risibilities to his heart’s content.”

And another blast from the past: The Official America Online for Windows Membership Kit and Tour Guide by Tom Lichty – a hefty guide to all things AOL from 1994. I’ve never used AOL – I went from Prodigy BBS to the open Web via Netscape Navigator and Hotmail – so this “tour” is through largely unfamiliar territory.

What I Plan to Read Next

I'm way behind on my continents challenge, so I should grab something from Australia soon! Next on my TBR stack are Chicago by Gaslight, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and The Unamericans by Molly Antopol.
This post is late, late, late, because I've been sidetracked, both by work and by how much I want to say about A Girl of the Limberlost It continues to be the story of Elnora's strange and unsettling mother, and not very much of Elnora, though everyone still acts as if she's the most important person in the world. Kate is such a wonderful, strange and awful character that she commands the whole book and poor Elnora doesn't have a chance.

There will be spoilers below.

Way too much about Kate, and a little about Elnora and BillyCollapse )

The next post will deal with the Curious Episode of the Straw Fiancee – which felt tacked on while I was reading it, because I was expecting a book about Elnora going to high school and teaching natural history to “the grades,” but which actually takes up the entire second half of the book.

Murder, Destroyer of Mondays

What I've Finished Reading

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. A beautiful young governess gets a job at an isolated French estate, with a glowering disabled man and his wife, a tall drink of cold water. The little boy she’s hired to teach English is distant and wary. One ominous thing after another happens and finally it becomes clear that someone, possibly everyone on the estate, is trying to kill the little boy and pin it on her. A fun, very florid read. The ending was a letdown because I didn’t like the love interest (obnoxious flashing-eyed fast-driving wrist-grabbing aristocrat with no redeeming qualities except “didn’t actually try to kill a little kid, as far as we know”). But it’s not the kind of book where you have to like the love interest in order to have a good time.

What I’m Reading Now

Two stories into The Hound of Death, a short story collection by Agatha Christie. The first and title story is about a spoooky case of religious delusion and coincidence. . . or is it? Unusually for Christie, we never really get an answer. A Belgian nun believes she has the power to summon “the Hound of Death,” a devastating destructive force, and may or may not have caused the abbey to spontaneously combust during the war after it had been commandeered by a large troop of German soldiers. Besides being inconclusive, there’s a touch of science fiction in this story Monsieur, it is not well that a man should come to power before his time. Many centuries must go by ere the world is ready to have the power of death delivered into its hand. . . . Was it the past Sister Marie Angelique saw in her visions of death-dealing technomages, or the future? Here in 1933, it’s both.

“The Red Signal” is a much more straightforward Christie puzzle with an obvious but cruel and clever twist. A man feels a strong sense of foreboding at a party, but it does him no good at all.

What I Plan to Read Next

I've just started Enter Sir John - murder on a quiet street with all the windows going up, and drowsy neighbors complaining about the noise. It's promising so far.

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.


blase ev

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