Maisie Dobbs and other things

Now that summer is here I thought I’d have all the time in the world to blog, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. This is partly because I’m teaching online, which doesn’t keep me too busy to blog, but it means that often I’ve maxed out on computer time before I sit down to write a post. There’s only a certain amount of time that I can stare at a computer comfortably before my eyes start to hurt and I get restless.

I’ve also kept busy riding my bike: last week I rode nearly 13 hours and almost 220 miles. I’m not sure if that’s a personal record or not, but it’s a lot of miles for me.

And then there are bike races to go to, and … well, unexpected visits to the hospital. Hobgoblin is just fine, but he did crash last night and suffered a concussion. Initially he seemed okay, if shaken up, but then he got dizzy and detached and slow to respond, so I got the car and we zipped off to the hospital. They did a CAT scan and everything looked fine, so they sent him home with some percocet. He’s recovering but still has a headache. As you can imagine, this kind of thing changes our plans pretty drastically. No one ever knows what’s going to happen to them ever, but sometimes this seems particularly true when a person spends hours and hours every week on a bicycle and rides in dangerous bike races …

But on to books. I’m considering participating in Infinite Summer, a website and a group of people dedicated to reading David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest over the course of the summer, from June 21st to September 22nd. There will be some regular posters at the Infinite Summer blog, and then there will be forums for discussion. They say we need to read only 75 pages a week to finish the book over the summer, and that seems entirely doable. Since I’m a new but ardent Wallace fan, and since Hobgoblin got me a copy of the novel for my birthday, the time seems right to read it.

And now on to Maisie. I finished Among the Mad, the latest Maisie novel recently, and enjoyed it, although with some mixed feelings. I think I’ll continue to read this series and continue to have mixed feelings.

This time around, Maisie seemed just a little bit too perfect. It struck me that she’s always right. The intuitions she has never lead her in the wrong direction and whenever anybody disagrees with her, you know they are going to be wrong. Maisie has a particularly strong and reliable intuitive power, one that borders on the supernatural at times, and that can get … boring.

I suppose this is a potential problem in all detective novels, since the detective does end up solving the case, and we read them partly to get to see our hero outsmarting everyone else. There’s always a danger the outsmarting will get dull. So a detective novelist has to find a way to keep this from getting too predictable, and really interesting heroes need to make mistakes, or at least have some believable flaws that keep them realistic.

And I’m not sure Maisie really has any flaws. She suffers, definitely, but her suffering comes from her experiences in World War I and not through any fault of her own. If anything, her flaws are that she works too hard and won’t allow herself to have a personal life, and this does become one of the recurring storylines, but for me, it’s not enough.

That aside, though, the story was interesting, not so much because of the mystery, but because of the historical context. All the Maisie Dobbs novels deal with the legacy of WWI in one way or another, and the author continues to keep this fresh and intriguing. This novel takes place in the winter of 1931 and tells about people who fought or worked in the medical field during the war and were damaged by it and who now feel that society has abandoned them. It deals with the history of chemical weapons development and animal experimentation, and one of the characters is a potential domestic terrorist, which gives the book a contemporary feel. The novel also makes it clear that World War II is on the way with references to fascists and political unrest.

I like the way the novels allow me to get a sense of the time period, and that’s really why I keep returning to them, besides the simpler motivation of wanting to know what happens to the characters. They aren’t perfect books, but they are really great light reading for when I’m in the mood.

16 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Books, Cycling, Fiction, Life, Reading, Teaching

16 responses to “Maisie Dobbs and other things

  1. I’m flirting with Infinite Summer, too. And I’ve wanted to read Maisie Dobbs for the longest time. I always love when books really give you a feel for the time period–you’re pushing me closer to reading them…

  2. I have much the same issues you do with the Maisie Dobbs books. I like the sense of period, and I even somewhat like Maisie herself, but her uncanny intuition is a bit off-putting. I’ve switched to listening to them on audio and liking them better in that format, but I’m not making a point to seek them out. (Pardonable Lies is as far as I’ve gotten.)

    You make a good point about the challenge of having a detective who can outsmart everyone. The gift for always being right doesn’t bother me with, say, Sherlock Holmes (or Mary Russell), but it does with Maisie Dobbs. I wonder if we get enough of her actual thought processes? Or if we get all the facts needed? It seems to me that she can make huge intuitive leaps based on nothing but her gut instinct and her sense of people or something, and not so much on actual evidence that we the readers also get to see.

    I do think the work-a-holism/independence is meant to be her big flaw, and that sometimes works for me, but I don’t think it comes back to bite her in the behind very much. It’s sort of her internal burden that cause her friends to worry about her, but that’s it.

  3. I am so sorry to hear about the Hobgoblin! These things are always scary. But very glad to know he’ll be fine once he’s rested. DO take care of yourselves. Reading is safe. Reading is a good way to avoid accidents. ;)

  4. I have the first Maisie Dobbs on my library shelf. I’m not much of a mystery/detective novel person but I just love the name “Maisie Dobbs”. I figure I’ve given books a shot for less than that. ;-)

  5. Glad to hear Hobgoblin is ok. How scary though! he needs a bigger helmet with more padding!

    I know what you mean about Maisie. all her hunches were always right in the this book even when they seemed wrong. Since I have only read one book, this one, it hasn’t come to bother me yet.

    Infinite Summer sounds really cool and I wish I could join up, but alas, I still have Gaddis and poor Proust sitting neglected at my bedside. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the book though!

  6. Oh, I hope Hobgoblin recovers quickly! S. had a concussion about six months ago and it took him several days to heal…lots of rest is very important!

  7. I am so glad Hobgoblin is all right, and I hope the headache goes away soon. He’s had a rough time on his bike these last two years! I hope (if he wants to) that he’ll be back on his bike again soon.

    I only have the first Maisie novel, which I haven’t read yet. I can totally picture what you and the other commenters are describing, that her fatal flaw is actually having no flaws, or perfection. There is a thesis in there, I think. :)

  8. Glad to hear Hobs seems to be recovering. It must have been really fun to read Maisie Dobbs juxtaposed with Lew Archer. (Just curious: did you listen to this one or read it? I’ve done both with her and think I prefer listening). I, like you, like the Dobbs books most for the history (makes me think I ought to read more books about WWI and its aftermath). Good luck with Infinite Jest. I am so tempted to join, but am getting to know myself well enough to know I won’t follow through.

  9. zhiv

    Best to the Hob–sounds like he’s toughing it out. I’ve had a couple of those and they’re no fun, but eventually they promote resting, taking it easy, and reading, all good things. Unless you’re playing hockey or football of course. Go Bears.

    I had sent my daughter the Infinite Summer link the day before you put this up. She read Consider the Lobster over Spring Break, which I had gotten for her based on your recommendation. She started Infinite Jest a week or so ago and was just wading in, and she was excited to see the site and when I set her this post too.

    Not sure I can get after this one myself, but I’m tempted, and I really liked the recent stuff in the New Yorker. It feels like I have a lot on my plate, but I’m not exactly sure what it is.

  10. Gentle Reader — it’s definitely worth giving Maisie a try! They are quick reads and so if you felt inspired, they wouldn’t take you long. And it would be very cool if you did Infinite Summer too!

    Teresa — I started off listening to Maisie Dobbs and I liked them better that way. I think I’m less critical when I’m listening. But I didn’t feel like waiting for the audio version to come out with the most recent books, so I went ahead and read them. I think you’re right about the lack of thought process. It’s too easy to give your detective a mysterious kind of sixth sense — that seems like cheating.

    Litlove — Hobgoblin has gotten some rest and is better. But he still plans to race tomorrow, and so do I … I’m not a risk-taker, really, except when it comes to cycling!

    Sassymonkey — and why not? You never know what you mind find :) I hope you enjoy the book when you find the name irresistible and finally pick the book up!

    Stefanie — well, Infinite Jest can be a big project for some point in the future. Perhaps they will do this Infinite Summer thing again? It’s only in the last book or two that I’ve felt this way about Maisie, and still I enjoyed the book anyway, in spite of my criticisms.

    Courtney — well, he’s taken it fairly easy over the last few days, although he does plan to race tomorrow. But I think if it feels like too much he’ll take it easy or drop out. Thank goodness it’s the summer, which makes it much easier to get rest.

    Debby — I hope my criticisms don’t turn you off from the book; I do think you would like it, and I’ve really enjoyed it in spite of some misgivings now and then. And yes, Hobgoblin has had quite the year or two on his bike — let’s hope this is the end of the troubles for a good long while!

    Emily — I read this one. I’m with you and prefer listening, but I didn’t want to wait for the audio to come out with her last couple books. I didn’t have any criticisms whatsoever when I listened. Oh, well — it’s interesting what that tells me about how I listen to books vs. read them.

    Zhiv — Hobgoblin is a huge Bears fan, and so would second your cheer. He’s doing pretty well — well enough to attempt racing again tomorrow. We’ll see how that goes. How cool that your daughter is reading Infinite Jest! It will be interesting to see how they make it work over there — how they get a conversation going and whether it’s a good one or not. I haven’t figured out how much I will participate or just follow what other people are doing.

  11. So sorry to hear about the Hobgoblin–how scary! I hope he’s feeling better! I always expect summer vacations to be sort of lazy, but they never really seem to turn out that way. It sounds like you have plenty to keep busy with and I totally understand about not liking to be in front of the computer for long periods of time. As for Maisie–she is a pretty interesting character. I think she does have some personal flaws, but she is always so totally in control it’s hard to really see them in that light. I think I am a less critical reader (in general) so I tend to overlook things–I sort of like that she is so smart and savvy–more so even than many of the men in the stories, but I can see how her constant perfectionism might get a little trying. It’s almost more for the historical/social aspect that I enjoy these books, too.

  12. By the way–I hope I didn’t make it sound like being a critical reader is a bad thing–it’s absolutely not, and I think it’s a shortcoming of mine by not being more critical in my reading!

  13. Hope Hobgoblin is feeling much better now! How scary.

    You know, you make a good point about mystery/detective novels. I mean, the good guy usually figures everything out so they seem kind of perfect so definitely an author has to come up with a good character for me to follow. I do like Maisie a lot – she’s probably one of my favorites – but you are right, she’s quite “perfect” isn’t she? I can’t remember, have you read any of the Ian Rankin books? Now there’s a detective who’s smart but with a lot of flaws!

  14. Danielle — Hobgoblin is doing better, as my latest post clarifies, although after the concussion, he had more troubles to go through! I think Maisie’s very interesting too; it’s just this time I wasn’t feeling completely won over. But she is too interesting from a historical and cultural perspective not to keep reading the books, and I do think the intuitive side of her is interesting. I guess I think it can interfere with the mystery side of things a bit.

    And as for being critical — I understood what you meant. I feel uncertain about that issue, because people who are more critical (in the negative sense) than I am can make me feel bad about my own positive judgments, but I shouldn’t feel that way. I don’t see your generous reading as a short-coming at all.

    Iliana — I have read Ian Rankin, and you’re absolutely right that his detective is flawed! Perhaps a lot of detectives ARE flawed for this exact reason — to make the fact that they figure everything out seem balanced.

  15. I guess I’m a little biased because Maisie is one of my favorite literary characters (my wife and I even thought about naming our daughter Maisie,) but I understand what you mean. I just happen to overlook her flaws. Rose colored glasses, you could say.

    But I would say that many great literary detectives that I’ve read seem to fall into the same category of always being right. It could make reading them tedious, but I’ve managed to be oblivious this long in life…and I don’t see an end to that anytime soon.

  16. Mike — I think Maisie is a wonderful name! And I can deal with her flawlessness pretty well, even though I do notice it more and more. A certain amount of obliviousness can be a good thing!

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