Monthly Archives: April 2008

Sweet Danger

Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger was the novel under discussion at my latest mystery book club meeting; once again it was a great discussion that went on for nearly four hours. We talked a lot about the details of the novel, of course, but also about the mystery genre itself, and we made comparisons between Sweet Danger and the club’s previous novel, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. On the surface these two novels couldn’t be more different — one is light and comic and the other is darkly violent without a ray of hope in it anywhere — but they do have some similarities, including main characters who are appealing largely because of the way we learn to trust them as the novel progresses, but who remain mysteries themselves, never described in detail and never given much of an inner life.

I’m glad we’re focusing on one genre, as it makes this kind of comparison possible, and it means that each time we meet we’re building common ground that will make future discussions that much richer. It feels a bit like a really good graduate class with a group of smart, enthusiastic people who have a lot to say. Except, of course, that we don’t have a professor, and we don’t have to write a course paper or give a presentation, and the topic is more fun than grad class topics usually are, and the reading load is lighter. And no one is showing off by dropping names of obscure theorists, or obnoxiously dominating the conversation in order to impress anybody, or using big words just to sound smart. Okay, it’s not like a grad class at all. Forget that.

Anyway, the group’s response to the book was mixed. Some people hated it and could barely finish it, others loved it, and others were somewhere in the middle. Those who didn’t like it complained about its lack of realism and its lack of depth — it didn’t seem to have any larger purpose and didn’t offer much entertainment to make up for that lack.

I was one of the ones who loved it, however. It took me a while to get in the spirit of the book — I wasn’t expecting its plot to be so complex and its tone to be so light and at times silly — but once I began to get a sense that this is what it would be like, I relaxed a bit and decided to enjoy the ride. Sometimes I resist when a book does something I don’t expect, but I like to try to take it on its own terms if I can and enjoy it for what it is, so with this book I began to appreciate the humor and the eccentricity of the characters and to appreciate the main character, Albert Campion, a man who is constantly described as “vague and foolish-looking” or as having an expression “vacant almost the point of imbecility” and yet who never fails to figure everything out. He doesn’t mind looking foolish either, at one point in the novel dressing up in women’s clothing for a purpose I can’t remember now but with hilarious results. The narrator describes him this way:

that was the beauty of Campion; one never knew where he was going to turn up next — at the third Levee or swinging from a chandelier …

I also loved the other main character Amanda (Emily has praised her highly too), an amazingly smart, talented, resourceful, and funny 17-year-old girl who single-handedly runs a mill to keep her family going. She’s easily a match for Campion, and it’s a delight to watch them work together to solve the mystery. I particularly liked her physical energy; as the narrator says, “Mr. Campion was fast learning that association with Amanda always entailed strenuous physical exertion.” She is beautiful, but poverty and general carelessness mean that “her costume consisted of a white print dress with little green flowers on it, a species of curtaining sold at many village shops” — and this is her nice outfit.

I haven’t told you much about the story, and I don’t think I will, as it’s a very complicated one, but, briefly, it’s about a tiny country in Europe (although it’s not set there); a lost inheritance; an uncertain family tree; a crazy country doctor; a fabulously wealthy and powerful corporate villain; a mysterious inscription on a tree; a drum, a bell, and a crown; and a whole crowd of trouble-makers. How all these fit together you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I don’t know yet what our next book will be, but I’m looking forward to it already.

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Race Report

I finished a road race!  Yes, this is the first time I’ve actually finished a road race (as opposed to a criterium, of which I’ve finished plenty), and by “finished” I mean stayed with the pack the entire way.  I’ve ridden all the miles of a number of road races (largely because the courses are long enough the racers do only a lap or two, so I have no choice but to finish all the miles just to get back to my car), but I’ve always gotten dropped on the hills.  As you can probably guess, today’s course wasn’t terribly hilly.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My race report should really begin last night with my book club meeting (about which more in a later post), which was absolutely wonderful, but which kept me up until 11:45 p.m. or so, which made this morning’s 4:30 alarm highly unwelcome.  As I’ve surely mentioned before, I don’t do well with little sleep. I tossed around the idea of staying in bed and skipping the race (thinking that it’s thrillingly self-indulgent to sign up for a race and then to spend all day purposely not riding in it), but I’ve already skipped one race this year because of lack of sleep and didn’t want to do it again.  So I spent the whole 2 hour drive up to Warren, Massachusetts, dozing and feeling miserable.  Watching it begin to sprinkle shortly after arrival made things that much worse.

But the rain stopped by the time the race went off and I was feeling more alert.  The race was to be two laps of 20 miles each; I’d never done the course before, but I’d heard it wasn’t hilly, so I was hoping not to be surprised.  I settled into the race pretty quickly, spending a lot of time in the middle or towards the front of a pack of 30 or so racers.  A couple times someone launched an attack, but no one ever managed to get far in front of the pack.  I spent the first 20 miles watching the course carefully and hoping not to be surprised by a steep hill or an attack I couldn’t follow.

I also spent the first 20 miles wondering why the pack seemed so relaxed.  The pace was almost leisurely at times and lots of people were talking and laughing instead of focusing on their riding.  It sometimes felt like a group ride rather than a race.  One person said she thought this was because many riders had raced in a local race yesterday and so were tired, an explanation which made sense.  So I decided I could relax a bit and enjoy the ride.  There were no bad hills — the one long one had some breaks in it that made it easier — and knowing that made the last 20 miles more fun.  I knew there was nothing scary out on the course, and I was pretty sure the pack wasn’t going to get away from me.

This left the final sprint, though, and I discovered that it’s an uphill finish — a very gradual uphill, but still, a hill.  As I started to climb, I saw my heart rate go up into the 180s, and I could feel my legs protesting. I stood up for the last little bit, my heart rate hitting 187, and finished behind a front line of racers but still somewhere in the middle of the pack.  I’m guessing I got something like 12th or 15th place; I will be able to find out for sure in a few days.

So, I’m happy with how it went.  I would have liked to finish stronger, but the fact that I finished at all is enough to make me happy.

BUT, the race report is not over.  I stayed at the finish line to watch Hobgoblin’s race and was horrified to see a bunch of crashes as the crowd of racers sprinted to the end.  I couldn’t see Hobgoblin anywhere.  I watched the people who crashed get up off the road and was relieved not to see him there, but I still had no idea where he was.

And this began a long search that seems farcical from the outside, but was frightening as I experienced it.  The problem is that there were two locations Hobgoblin could possibly be — at the High School where we parked or at the Elementary School where the afternoon races began.  We hadn’t made plans where to meet.  I first went to one school and didn’t see Hobgoblin, so I rode the five miles or so to the other school and still didn’t see Hobgoblin or the car, so I waited a while and then rode back to the first school, and still didn’t see him.  I talked to a bunch of people who promised to help me find him, and then I watched the afternoon races begin, because there wasn’t much else I could do.  Then a group of women very kindly told me Hobgoblin was waiting at the other school, and one of them offered to give me a ride.  He wasn’t there, though, and so we drove back, finally passing his car when we’d almost arrived.

It turns out Hobgoblin had done much the same thing I’d done — he’d looked for me at the finish line and didn’t see me, looked for me at one school and didn’t see me, then he got lost trying to find the other school, and then he drove back and forth a couple times more, never seeing me.

Everything was fine in the end, but all that wandering around and searching was no fun for either of us.  We clearly need to plan where we will meet next time; this time around it simply didn’t occur to us that a plan would be necessary.  Hobgoblin is fine, by the way — no crashes or trips to the hospital.

So, all’s well that ends well, I suppose.

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Book therapy

Another way I’ve found to deal with my reading funk, in addition to listening to P.D. James novels on audio, is visiting my local used bookstore. Inspired by Kate’s group reading of Anne of Green Gables, I went out to find a copy this afternoon (and, inspired by Emily’s Eco-justice Challenge, I walked!). I had a complete set of the Anne books when I was a kid, but I left them behind when I grew up and have been deprived ever since. Now, though, I’m the proud owner of Anne of Green Gables once again. I realized after I got home that I’ll probably have to go back to find the rest of the Anne books, because will I want to stop after just one book? Probably not.

While I was at the store I couldn’t resist picking up another couple books, including E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, which looks like tremendous fun, and Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. It’s a Virago Modern Classic, which interests me automatically, but the back cover description was especially intriguing:

Sophia is twenty-one years old, naive, unworldly, and irresistible — most particularly to Charles, a young painter whom she married in haste and with whom she plunges into a life of dire poverty. Desperate, Sophia takes up with the dismal, aging art critic Peregrine, and learns to repent both marriage and affair at leisure. How Sophia survives to find true love is delightfully told in this engaging and eccentric novel, which also gives a wonderful portrait of bohemian life in London in the 1940s.

It’s the bohemian life in the 1940s part in particular that got my attention. My used bookstore had a number of interesting-looking Viragos, but I decided I couldn’t carry them all home, so I may have to go back to get more later. And I just mooched Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz, so I’m thrilled to have yet another Virago on the way.

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Mysteries

One book I have been able to enjoy lately, in spite of my reading slump, is P.D. James’s The Lighthouse, which I’m listening to on audio in my car on the way to and from work.  I’m not sure if it’s the book itself or the experience of listening rather than reading that makes the difference, but I have looked forward to listening to it every chance I get over the last week or so.  I finished it yesterday.

One of the things that drew me to the book, in addition to the interesting characters, the well-crafted plot, the atmosphere of literate intelligence, was its setting. It takes place on Combe Island, which has been used for the last half-century or so as a place of retreat for busy, stressed VIPs who need a place to relax for a week or two.  It’s a quiet place, with no cell phones, no noise, and no work (at least for the VIPs).  Visitors to the island spend their time reading, listening to music, walking along the shore, and joining each other occasionally for dinner, although they can remain completely isolated if they prefer.  Food appears regularly at their doorsteps and the guest cottages stay immaculately clean. The island’s most important rule is that nobody should bother the visitors.   As I listened, I couldn’t help but think about how much I need such a retreat right now.  Doesn’t it sound heavenly?  Yes, I’m not a VIP, and yes, it’s not entirely safe — murder may occur, but at this point I might consider risking it.

I enjoyed the novel so much that today I began listening to it again.  I’m so terrible at figuring out the plots of mystery novels and I’m bad at remembering all the details to put everything together properly at the end (especially when I’m listening as opposed to reading) that I thought I might enjoy listening to it again knowing who the murderer is, to see how James prepares the reader for the ending.  I haven’t the faintest clue how to go about plotting a mystery novel, and I have no intention of trying it myself, but I thought it would be interesting to learn a little about how James does it by paying closer attention than I could the first time around.

Really, since I have to commute, isn’t that a good way to spend the time?

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Reading funk

I’m beginning to think I should stop reading for a while, because every book I pick up seems to be not quite right for my mood. I’m at a loss to find the book that will do.

After feeling dissatisfied with Rosamund Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove, I picked up Georgette Heyer’s novel Venetia, thinking I couldn’t go wrong with Heyer, and yet she didn’t quite do the trick either. The novel’s slow pace bothered me. This, surely, is a sign things are not right with me, as I usually like novels with slow paces. I also found the heroine a little irritating — she laughed the entire way through the book, even in very dramatic situations where any normal person would not crack a smile. And I couldn’t quite forgive the hero for forcing a kiss on Venetia at their very first meeting. I suppose this is meant to be sexy — the bad boy hero can’t resist and the innocent heroine can’t help but like it — but I found it obnoxious.

I disliked the gender dynamics in other ways too. When Venetia meets Damerel, the rakish hero, she spends some time thinking about his history with women and how she feels about it, and she decides that men are simply that way; they can’t help but chase women and have affairs, and there’s nothing to be done about it and it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. I think she’s supposed to come across as admirably practical and realistic for thinking this way. As far as I’m concerned, though, if this is the truth about men, I think I’d rather not know.

So, I’m reading Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger now, and so far it’s going okay, but I’m afraid it’ll head downhill at any moment, or, rather, my feelings about it will head downhill, probably for reasons that have nothing to do with the book. I feel I should apologize to any author and any book I attempt reading right now, as I surely am not doing them justice.

I’m hoping I get over this soon ….

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On the Western Circuit

I’ll be discussing the Thomas Hardy short story “On the Western Circuit” with my class this week; I’ve always liked Hardy, in all his darkness and gloom, but I fell in love with him when I came across this sentence while preparing for class — at this point the story’s heroine is riding on a carousel, having just met the handsome Charles Bradford Raye:

Each time that she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, content, resignation, despair.

When I read this long list of the results of one smiling gaze, I couldn’t help but laugh — it’s not really funny, of course, but it’s just so perfect and so much like Hardy to have one eye on the story and one eye on universal despair. I love how he mixes the positive in with the negative — it’s not just heartache and drudgery but also union and content we experience — because the presence of these positive experiences makes the overall despair seem even worse in contrast. And I love how he mixes the personal with the impersonal; it’s not just heartache and despair but also overpopulation we’re dealing with. Personal tragedies lead directly to social ones.

No, this is not a happy story. It’s about Anna, a country girl who has come to the small city of Melchester to live with Edith, a woman who has offered to train her as a servant. While riding the carousel, Anna meets Charles; they fall in love and he “[wins] her, body and soul.” Hardy describes this “winning” very briefly and without judgment. It’s something natural Anna has done, and although society might judge her for it, Hardy won’t. Work takes Charles away, and when he writes her a letter, Hardy reveals Anna’s dilemma: she is illiterate and cannot read the letter. She begs Edith to write a letter for her, which she does, and they fall into a regular correspondence, Charles and Anna/Edith. Anna begins by dictating the letters, but soon Edith edits and embellishes and even writes entire letters without Anna’s knowledge. Charles is astonished that an ill-educated country girl could write so well, and he begins to fall in love with the letter-writer. Then Anna finds herself “in a delicate situation,” as they say, and the plot thickens.

The moving thing about this story is that everyone does something wrong and yet no one is really at fault, and the story doesn’t judge them, but rather presents their actions and the consequences dispassionately, as though nothing could possibly have been any different. Charles should not have seduced an innocent girl, Anna should not have allowed herself to be seduced, Edith should not have deceived Charles by writing Anna’s letters, and yet each of the characters finds him or herself in much deeper trouble than any of these actions would suggest. Each one is portrayed sympathetically. They are trapped, caught by nature and by fate, and they suffer undeservedly. Such is the universe.

I’ve read five Hardy novels, some of them twice; I guess I’m drawn to this kind of clear-eyed pessimism, as well as to a well-told story. I read these novels quite a while ago, however; perhaps one day I’ll reread some of them or pick up ones I haven’t experienced yet. This short story has certainly whet my appetite.

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Longing for Summer: A Thursday Thirteen

Summer is so close, and yet not nearly close enough — 3 weeks until the end of classes, and then another two weeks after that of final exams, grading, and a school retreat, at which I have to take on some responsibility instead of just whining and moaning my way through it like I did last year. (Ummm … this retreat is purely voluntary, so I really have nothing to complain about, except my inability to say no when people at work ask me to do things.)

So, inspired by Danielle’s regular (or semi-regular) Thursday Thirteens, I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what I might read this summer. I am by no means holding myself to this list; rather, it’s what I would want to read if my summer began today:

  1. Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I just this minute mooched from Book Mooch. I remember reading The Crimson Petal and the Black last summer and loving it, so a return to some Victorian-era fiction sounds perfect for this summer.
  2. Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. The author graciously offered to send me a copy and I instantly accepted. I’ve heard such good things about this book, and I do love campus novels. Yes, this might be a strange thing to read over the summer, when I’m wanting to escape from school, but reading a novel about campus life is not at all like living it.
  3. Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’ve been meaning to read this one forever, and after my great Wuthering Heights experience, I’m excited to read more of the Brontes. I also have Agnes Grey and Shirley on hand.
  4. Antonia White’s Frost in May. I can’t get enough of those Viragos, and this one I’ve heard mentioned quite a few times.
  5. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and/or The Blue Flower. I keep mixing up Penelope Fitzgerald and Penelope Lively. Perhaps once I’ve read them both I’ll stop doing that.
  6. Shalom Auslander’s The Foreskin’s Lament. Bitter, angry religious memoir? Sounds like my kind of book.
  7. Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter. This is about women’s lives around Jane Austen’s time. I’d love to know more. In fact, I might begin this one before summer.
  8. Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Anything by Josipovici, fiction or nonfiction, would be just fine.
  9. Mary Brunton’s Discipline. This was published in 1814, so she’s a contemporary of Jane Austen. I’ve heard very good things about her, and I do love novels from this time period.
  10. Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, or perhaps A Lover’s Discourse or anything else of his that strikes my fancy. Barthes is a theorist I’d like to read more of.
  11. William St. Clair’s The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. A number of books on my list either come from or are about the Romantic period — such a fascinating time, isn’t it? I also want to read St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.
  12. Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories. A collection of essays by one of my favorite poets. Some more of her poetry would be wonderful to read as well.
  13. W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. Sebald is such a fascinating writer; I loved The Rings of Saturn and am looking forward to reading more.

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