Well, go figure. The first quarter of 2021 is already behind us, never mind that I’m still having to remind myself on occasion to write “2021” instead of “2020” … (and we’re even a week into April already, but let that go).
Anyway, since I never got around to doing a “February in review” post, here’s February and March lumped together as part of the first-quarterly stock taking.
Number of books read to date: 34
This is (considerably) less than in previous years; like many others, I’m occasionally finding it hard to focus on books these days and have extended periods where I’m bingeing on favorite movies and TV series instead. Also, I’m a huge winter sports fan, and it’s hard to resist the pull of German TV’s all-day coverage running every weekend from late October / early November through the end of March, each and every winter … with additional live coverage, plus videos of the full competition available on the stations’ websites for events that you might have missed, of events occurring during the week. — Well, now that the winter sports season is over (except for hockey, which I couldn’t care less for), I suppose we’ll see what I’m going to do with my weekends instead … other than writing lengthy recap posts, that is! 🙂
Average rating of books read to date: 3.9 stars
— which is better than I expected, since I really had no idea where some of my reading projects were going to take me this year. (And interestingly, most of the lower ratings derive from books that I picked outside of my “official” reading projects.) Well, let’s hope things are going to continue in a similar vein throughout the rest of the year, at least as far as my official reading projects are concerned!
In terms of genres, mysteries still make up the largest group of books read if taken in isolation (including historical mysteries, they account for almost 50% of all books I read in the first three months of 2021), but that is a percentage I’m comfortable with — mysteries (both new and rereads) are my main source of comfort reading, and I still find I need lots of that at the moment. I am happy to see that the figures for classics, LitFic and nonfiction are holding up well, though, both (combined) in comparison with the number of mysteries read and individually / vis-à-vis each other. (Classics: 7; LitFic: 3; Nonfiction: 7.) Note: Three of the books I read in Q1 / 2021 were historical fiction, which I do track as a category of its own but included in the aforementioned numbers for purposes of this particular survey (2 historical mysteries, 1 classic).
Lastly, the non-book-related alphabet project is on its final stretch, with just another five letters to go — initially I’d been hoping to be entirely done with it at this point, but hey, such is life. I’m not overly bothered about completion schedules; I am happy about the way it’s been shaping up, however, not least because actually verbalizing my thoughts on these topics has, in more than one instance, helped me clarifying them in my own mind, too.
My Reading Projects
This project is turning out a rousing success so far; not only am I ahead of schedule in terms of the total number of books read for it (9 / 25, with 6 / 25 having been the target for the first three months of the year); almost all of the books I read for this project were also among the standouts of the first quarter of 2021 — and the project has, so far, accomplished its goal of increasing the share of books by non-Caucasian and minority authors included in my yearly reading (almost 27%, vis-à-vis an overall average of just about 10% in 2020 on the ethnicity score alone; include other minorities and we’re up to almost 30% for Q1 / 2021). So, hooray for that!
The project also neatly incorporates, of course, Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
- Kamala Harris: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey — Review HERE.
- Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God — Review HERE.
- Barack Obama: A Promised Land — Review HERE.
Toni Morrison: Sula
I’d been planning to pair this book with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, as an exercise in comparing an African American and an African coming of age story, but Nervous Conditions never materialized in my mailbox, so I’m going to have to postpone that reading experience to a later date.
Which, perhaps, isn’t such a bad thing after all, since Toni Morrison’s novella packs an incredible punch in and of itself and turned out to be much, much more than “merely” a coming of age story. It is that, too, sure — the story of two friends coming of age in Jim Crow America, one of whom (the eponymous Sula) grows up to be a rebel, while her best friend Nel settles down to become a wife and mother. But it is also a tale of contrasts in other respects; chiefly the contrast between black and white: the privileged white community in the valley, near the river, and the black community on the nearby hill, where the land is less arable and yields poorer results, but which bears the name “Bottom” because its founder has been bamboozled (by a white man, of course) into believing that it is “the bottom of Heaven”. And the contrast between the lives of the white community (which we see, almost exclusively, as a uniform collective whose chief interaction with its black neighbors consists in keeping them out, e.g. by way of denying them lucrative employment on road construction projects) and the highly individual lives and fates of several members of the black community; Sula’s and Nel’s families and those whom they encounter in ways that profoundly impact their individual lives. And whenever there are interactions between members of the two ethnic groups, we not only get poignant glimpses of early 20th century America — such as the fact that blacks did not have access to toilets when traveling by train, however long distance their trip –; these interactions also, almost invariably, leave the blacks involved in them sullied in some fashion or other … which however doesn’t make them appear darker but lighter in complexion.
I suppose one of the questions that Morrison invites readers to answer for themselves here is whether Sula is evil, perhaps even Evil incarnate, but I’m not even going to go there. Sula suddenly leaves the community on the night of Nel’s wedding and when she reappears, equally suddenly, several years later, there are, on their face, plenty of things she does — including to Nel — which incur the community’s righteous anger and even downright vitriol; and which bring her and Nel’s friendship to breaking point. And not all of these acts are explicable, let alone justifiable, by Sula’s own experience while growing up, or by the life experience of other members of her family. (One incident in particular had me literally gasping for breath, and while Morrison clearly had a reason for including it, to me it smacked of gratuitous horror and it is almost singlehandedly responsible for my withdrawing a half star rating from what would otherwise doubtlessly have been a five star book.) Because in the final consequence this isn’t Sula’s but Nel’s story, who for all of Sula’s defiance (of rules, of people, of fate) shows herself the stronger and more steadfast of the two. And I just want to leave it at that.
A final note on the audio version: I am incredibly glad that her publisher made Toni Morrison sit down and record narrations of all of her major works, so as to ensure that her voice continues to be heard not merely figuratively but actually, too. Her spoken narration, where she not so much tells the story as softly, darkly purs it into the reader’s ear, is not equally conducive to all of her books (first time readers of Beloved, especially, are well advised to approach the novel by way of a print edition in preference or at least in addition to Morrison’s audio narration), but for Sula it worked perfectly and subtly enhanced my reading experience in the way that only a skillful reading by the book’s own author can. (There are plenty of authors who are well advised to leave the narration of their books to others: Toni Morrison manifestly is not one of those; even if her style won’t necessarily suit everybody.)
All in all, an excellent start into the second month of the year, and a continuation of my Diversity Bingo reads on the same high level that had been set by the books I read for it in January.
Zadie Smith: Feel Free
I’ve had several books by Zadie Smith sitting on my TBR for a minor eternity; oddly, when the moment came to finally pick one of them, I didn’t select one of her novels but this collection of essays — which didn’t turn out to be a bad choice, however, as the essays included here did a good job in introducing me to Smith’s personal perspective on a wide variety of topics, “from Brexit to Beyoncé”, in the words of the Independent blurb reproduced on the back cover. And it was the pieces where Smith’s own perspective and life experience manifests most directly that worked best for me: While I acknowledge, for example, that her art, book, movie and TV show reviews have a place in a collection such as this one, and of course her perspective on a show such as Key and Peele or on a movie such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out is necessarily different from mine and therefore of great interest to me — and yes, these passages did hold my close attention — the same is not equally true for each and every single review of hers included here; and I sometimes found myself wishing her reviews, well-written though they are, had been collected in a separate volume of their own. So in part my rating may be an application of “it’s not you, book, it’s me”: The reason why I had picked this book was because I had wanted to meet the writer of On Beauty and White Teeth, and yes, I did get to meet her, just not as exclusively as I had been hoping. (Though obviously the first three / four pieces, Smith’s review of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and the final piece, Joy, are highly illuminating on that score, as are her repeated references ot Key and Peele and her views on cultural appropriation.) So, obviously I’m still happy to have read this book, and I’m now even more curious about Smith’s fiction.
Patricia Highsmith: Carol (The Price of Salt)
My record with Highsmith’s writing is a mixed one: I found the first Ripley novel (The Talented Mr. Ripley) morbidly fascinating and the sardonic put-down of the arts world in the second one (Ripley Under Ground) oddly amusing, and I obviously love any cat story of hers where a cat gets the better of a human; especially if said human has clumsily been trying and is shown to be monumentally failing in their attempts to sideline the wily feline in the first place. But I am not a major fan of Highsmith’s approach to her characters, who (e.g. in Strangers on a Train) are almost uniformly unlikeable and, in their majority, even downright jerks — I tend to need at least one person in a book that I can root for; otherwise at some point I start asking myself “why am I reading these horrible people’s story to begin with”? So, even though I knew that Carol (originally published pseudonymously as The Price of Salt) was based on Highsmith’s own experience, I approached it with a tiny bit of trepidation.
I needn’t have worried. This book now easily ranks among my firm favorites in Highsmith’s body of work (what I have read of the latter, that is). Carol is, in the first place, an in-depth portrait of a lesbian relationship, and of the way in which lesbians (and same-sex relationships generally) were seen in 1950s society; but it also asks questions about human relationships generally, and about the social interactions of women with other women, women and men and (to some extent) even men with other men, at least insofar as a woman is “in the picture”, as well as questions about women’s position in the workplace and in society as such. There is plenty of heartbreak, particularly as a result of the ruthless campaign mounted by Carol’s husband to deprive her of the custody of her small daughter, solely on the grounds of her “inappropriate” relationship with the book’s narrator, Therese. This campain is not only relentless but of a chilling, downright clinical nature, all of which is way more hurtful and effective than Carol’s husband were foaming at the mouth, as it reveals the struggle for the child as a fundamentally unequal one: The love of a mother who is forced into a desperate cat-and-mouse game that she has few chances to win against the cool calculation of a man who is accustomed to winning, for whom this is not about love at all but about power and possession, and whose only emotion (if any) to enter into the picture is that of a husband whose ego has been pricked by the discovery that, not only did his wife never really love him at all (he already knew that anyway, and it didn’t matter a jot), but even worse, she is “one of those” who seemingly have no use for men in their lives to begin with. — In all of that, Highsmith may have chosen the narrative perspective of Carol’s young lover Therese rather than Carol herself because that was closer to her own experience, but this, too, only enhances the novel’s emotional power: On the one hand, it allows the reader to gradually understand the complexities in which Carol is caught up alongside Therese’s growing understanding; on the other hand, we are not served Carol’s emotional life on a platter but have to do the legwork ourselves, seeing past her apparently cool and controlled behavior and learning to understand her “from the outside”, like Therese and every observer is forced to do, with all the risks of misunderstandings that this involves.
Yet, along the heartbreak, there is also plenty of love and affection — between Carol and her daughter, between Carol and Therese, and in numerous other respects — and we even get a sort of in-novel road movie highly reminiscent of Thelma & Louise (and which just may have inspired the iconic1991 blockbuster to some extent; I have no idea whether that was in fact the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that was; different ending or not).
Gabriel García Márquez: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel, and Other Stories)
García Márquez’s writing, by and large, works better for me in his novels than in his short stories, and that turned out to be true in connection with this particular collection, too; even though its titular first entry is almost of novella-length: But this is a story where little moves — quite literally — and García Márquez devotes a lot of space to building atmosphere and setting, which really only works for me if coupled with an equally significantly “involved” plot of a novel (or a novella such as Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), with its heart-stopping final sequence).
What initially comes across as a collection of unconnected tales is gradually revealed as events occurring in the same village (or at least region), and in the same universe as the author’s most famous novel, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), decades after the end of the civil war described there. (Note: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba was actually published five years before Cien años de soledad, however.) These are stories of little lives, set against the background of sun-drenched, dusty, forlorn desert settlements a hundred miles from nowhere in the middle of an unnamed South American country; the lives of the rural poor, to whom apparently minor incidents can be of monumental importance, but who on the other hand respond to major, life-changing catastrophes and reversals of fortune with the equanimity of the perpetually powerless (“Why bother to get worked up about something you cannot change anyway?”), going on with their lives as if nothing had happened, only making minor adjustments where they can — and who are nevertheless caught out by life in the end. Taken together, they form a canvas that looks rough at first glance but turns out to be intricately-woven at closer inspection; whether you admire it as a deliberately limited, miniaturist masterpiece or (like me) ultimately would prefer to see it being put into a wider context is, I suppose, a matter of personal preference.
Olivia Manning: The Spoilt City
The second volume of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, which in turn forms the first part of her Fortunes of War story arch (whose second part, equally consisting of three installments, is known as the Levant Trilogy). The hexalogy is based on Manning’s own World War II expat experience; it was adapted for the small screen in 1987, starring the then-up-and-coming power couple of British film and television (to-be), Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, as the protagonists Guy and Harriet Pringle. I’d watched (and own) the DVD of the screen adaptation, but had yet to read the books: a gift from a friend, of the Balkan Trilogy‘s lovely NYRB edition, provided the final incentive to begin remedying that fact.
While the trilogy’s first book essentially sets the first two books’ overall scene — Bucharest on the brink of WWII –, introduces us to the story arch’s major characters, and chronicles Harriet’s first steps and experience as the wife of an expat English professor, in The Spoilt City it becomes ever more obvious that war is upon us, and Romania (which, albeit hardly of its own making, barely two decades prior had been one of the territorial “winners” of WWI) finds itself buffeted between the growing agressions of Nazi Germany, the increasingly reluctant and purely nominal “friendship” of the UK, the self-serving stance of Stalin’s USSR (a predator willing to watch others do the dirty work for him and pounce when the field is clear and the victim is lying on the ground defenselessly), and the greed, corruption, and power struggle of the country’s own competing elites. As in the first book (and the better part of the entire hexalogy), the point of view from which we are observing the events is that of the expats (chiefly Harriet) — people who are “on the ground”, but nevertheless removed from Romanian and Bucharest society; who observe what is going on and whose lives are touched to a certain degree, but nowhere near as dramatically as those of the local population, by the political power struggle within Romania and the consequences of the rise of domestic Romanian fascists, the increasing (and increasingly menacing) presence of representatives of the Nazi regime, the violence in the streets, the dispossession and (judicially sanctioned) murder of well-to-do Jews, the frantic scramble of those who can to leave the country and at least save their own lives (if nothing else), etc. The British expats have to adapt their lifestyle to some extent: there are certain cafés where they are no longer welcome, and their diet is restricted (most notably, meat is no longer available every day); but for the longest time they are able to stand on their balconies and observe the events, quite literally, looking down onto the streets below like spectators in a stadium. It is not until the Nazis pick up on a rumor according to which certain members of the British expat community are spies involved in a conspiracy to thwart the fascist takeover of Romania that they are directly and personally attacked — and they are made to leave the country in short order afterwards, with considerably more of their possessions than the displaced Romanians. Thus, on the few occasions when Manning wants to take the reader into a more immersive experience (e.g., train journeys beset by the panic and chaos of hoards of people fleeing for their lives), she necessarily has to shift the perspective to other characters less able to shield themselves from the violence around them.
This perspective of experiencing the implosion of a society under the pressures of an impending war doubtlessly isn’t everybody’s cup of tea and won’t satisfy those looking for a more immersive reading experience; personally I ‘m finding it fascinating in part just because of its artificial remove from the chaos all around. For one thing, this is by far not the first book about war, and what it does to civil society, that I have read; and the best of these books make for a harrowing experience indeed which has made me feel blessed repeatedly that I am merely reading about it and not experiencing first-hand what is described on the pages of the book. This obviously applies, too, to WWII — in addition to which, I have my own family’s narrations to go on as far as that particular war is concerned. So for me, being educated about war and what it does to the individual and to society at large wouldn’t necessarily distinguish this book as such, though obviously the specific Romanian experience probably still would. But it is precisely the almost schizophrenic tension arising out of the expats’s being “there but not really there” that adds an extra level of interest to me, simply because it is not the narrative perspective you usually in a book about war. (That being said, William Shirer’s Berlin Diary has long been sitting on my TBR — I may have to finally move it up a few rungs, if for no other reason than to see how it compares with this hexalogy.)
A final note on the audio version, to which I listened to accompany the printed text, not least because it is narrated by Harriet Walter, whose work in pretty much every medium — stage, screen, print, audio — I greatly respect: If it brought home anything in addition to providing a slightly greater immediacy than merely following the text on the page, it was that Emma Thompson, for all her enormous gifts as an actress, just isn’t the Harriet Pringle of the book, who is petite, a bit angular, dark-haired, and given to bouts of spunkiness (and who would arguably have seemed to be no ill fit for Harriet Walter). Branagh, on the other hand, is exactly the Guy Pringle who also comes across in the books: intellectual, shy of conflicts (especially those of a personal nature, which he usually leaves for Harriet to solve), pig-headed, generous (not only, and not necessarily always with things that actually are within his gift), and practical only in the pursuit of a goal that he himself deems worthwhile. (Further side note: I think this is a first in that for once I actually prefer Branagh‘s portrayal over Thompson‘s, albeit on character and not on acting grounds.)
Zahra Hankir (ed.) & Various Authors: Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World
One of the last books I read in the first quarter of 2021 was, at the same time, also one of my reading highlights to date — and next to the likes of Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison (as well as Agatha Christie’s multiple appearances in the area of mysteries), that is truly saying something. Our Women on the Ground is a collection of autobiographical — indeed, highly personal — essays by women reporters from various parts of one the world’s most fractious and fragile regions, the Middle East and North Africa: Syria, Iraq, Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and, yes, even Saudi Arabia; and it simply blew me away. Not only because even going in, I had realized how little I really knew about Middle Eastern women’s lives (which was why I had wanted to read this book to begin with, after all) — but because words just cannot describe the amount of respect that these women, and their sisters in the Middle East and Arab world generally, deserve.
There is a widespread perception of Middle Eastern women as either victims of an overbearing male-dominated society, doomed to passivity and submission, or, if they have freed themselves from the yoke, as rebels fighting for the feminist ideal that the Western Women’s Lib generation has made its own once and for all ever since the 1960s. The reality is, of course, infinitely more complex; and it utterly defies simple, one-size-fits-all answers. Lina Attalah, editor of a Cairo-based news website (Mada Masr — “Egyptian Matter(s)”), in an essay framed as the letter to her deceased father that she found herself unable to write during his lifetime, captures the issue from her personal perspective like this:
“Women in Egypt, as well as in other Arab and Middle Eastern countries, are often depicted by the Western world as nothing but victims of patriarchy. Through the privilege of social status, and, more specifically, my family’s middle-class insistence to invest in a good-quality education (in other words, a French school and an American university), I had direct access to that Western world. I worked in English, the lingua franca of the globe. I became an extension of the object of the typical Western gaze in that context, albeit an exciting extension because of the irregularities I represented: I was an Arab woman whose activism was visible to the public, against the odds of the prevalent conservatism and patriarchy associated with the region. Speaking and writing invitations on the back of my gender started rolling in one after another. […]
These invitations often made me feel trapped in place, identity, and body. I felt as though a form of bourgeois or liberal feminism was being imposed upon me and I had to constantly free myself from it. I almost never had something smart to say as an answer to that nagging question: What is it like to be a woman journalist in Egypt nowadays? I didn’t want to recount stories of sexism, patriarchy, and oppression that would feed into commonplace Orientalist essentialism and render me a heroic survivor. Nor did I want to engage in a short-sighted defense of th Arab. But I had no third story to tell, no nuanced explanation of how we live a life of public engagement through the lens of gender. […]
My tongue spoke a lingua franca, but my mind was refusing to speak its dominant mind-set, which tends to represent the society I come from as static.”
Each of the contributors to this book had to find her own individual path, and none of the “third stories” they tell as a result is even remotely like any of the others. None of these women is content with the shorthand quip “Well, I’m not a male journalist, so I can’t compare” as an answer to the “nagging question” mentioned by Lina Attalah in the passage quoted above (though said quip does seem to be a handy and not uncommon replacement for “f*ck off” if annoyed by that “nagging question”, if another essay is to be believed). Most of them were born and have grown up in the Middle East; some however, while of Middle Eastern descent, have grown up in the West and returned to the region as grown-ups. Some, but not all of them bow to the demands of the societies in which they live, or used to live during the times about which they write: Few had (or have) to go so far as to balance the freedom required for doing their job with the extreme limitations of wearing a burqa, confining their activities to the daytime hours, and / or moving around outside their house only with a mahram (literally, “an acceptable escort”, i.e. a male protector, who has to be close blood relative), whose absence may cause them to be arrested for contravening Islamic law, as may the choice of a fake mahram, which will instantly also subject both of them to the gravest charges of indecency — and yet, that is a risk they routinely incur in pursuance of their job. (And if these are restrictions that make a reporter’s life hard even under ordinary circumstances — as they do — imagine how much more crippling they must be when reporting from a war zone!) Others, by contrast, refuse entirely to (e.g.) cover their hair; one of the anthologies’ contributors was all of 15 years old when she took this stance in defiance of her entire family, rejecting “all the women in our town do” as a good enough reason to follow precedent. Some eventually had to accept various forms of compromise (headscarf, long dark coat) or made their peace with the hijab in the interests of their job. Many of these women, even those who went to university with their families’ consent, have encountered the sharp opposition of their nearest and dearest for their choice of profession. (“We wanted you to have a decent education, but we didn’t mean you to do that with it, you ungrateful wretch!”) Some, however, are able to combine the role of a journalist with that of a wife and mother, whereas others — particularly in the more orthodox Islamic societies — are paying for their chosen path with a life of permanent singlehood, as their profession is considered way too freewheeling and liberated to make them acceptable “marriage material”. Yet, all of them display a deep devotion to their calling, which is clearly the ruling passion of their lives; a devotion that has been tested, sometimes up to or beyond the breaking point, by their experience on and off the job; by harassment (sexual and otherwise), misogyny, and violence of every form, from fist cuffs and beatings to bullets, bombs, and an Islamic terrorist executioner’s blade.
- The book’s editor, Zahra Hankir, in the introduction tells the story of Ruqia Hasan, a 30-year old philosophy graduate who — under the pseudonym Nissan Ibrahim — in 2014-2015 posted fearless, detailed “citizen journalist” inside reports from her home town Raqqa on her Facebook page during the Islamic State’s occupation of that part of Syria … until the terrorist group caught up with her and abducted and murdered her; a fate that she had knowingly taken into account, as to her constituted a death “with dignity”, as opposed to remaining silent or trying to flee the city.
- Hannah Allam writes about the experience of being a female war correspondent in Iraq, and about the women she met there; suddenly made sole providers for their families after their husbands and male relatives had been blown up by car bombs (80 dead men per day, on average, during the height of the sectarian violence in 2006 alone).
- Nada Bakri writes about the experience of losing her husband, New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, during his final (secret) reporting trip into civil war- and terrorist-destroyed Syria.
- Hwaida Saad writes about the jihadis she met and interviewed, and whose path into fanaticism — and occasionally, their ultimately futile attempts to escape from the tangles of terrorrism — she chronicled, after the so-called Islamic State had taken hold of large parts of Syria: Like other native speakers she refers to the group as “Daesh“, which, though facially an acronym of the Arabic version of its name, is considered derogatory, as it recalls the words daes and dāhis (respectively referring to “one who crushes something underfoot” and “one who sows discord”).
- Jane Arraf writes about the difficulties, anxieties, insecurities and absurdities brought to the fore in Iraq by the attempt to bridge ocean-wide cultural gaps when it became apparent that a mere military approach was not going to be anywhere near enough to accomplish anything of even short-term use to the country and its people after the American invasion.
- Natacha Yazbeck writes about her family’s escape from “what [was] not yet Lebanon” (“there is hunger, and there are the Ottomans”) and her own return to the region — Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen — to report on its seemingly neverending conflicts and the floods of refugees, each one an individual with their hopes and dreams, yet even collectively not seeming to make much of a mark.
- Nour Malas writes about the disconnect between origin and national identity (or the absence of one), about watching Syria (from in- and outside the country) disintegrate into civil war, and about the European (specifically: German) end of the refugee crisis.
- Hind Hassan writes about her own wanderings between two worlds, growing up in the Northwest of England as a child of Iraqi descent and returning to Iraq to cover the aftermath of IS / Daesh terror, and about learning to reconcile the conflicting elements of her own identity as a result.
- Eman Helal, a photojournalist, writes about using her camera to expose everyday sexism, misogyny, and sexual harrassment in Egyptian society.
- Aida Alami writes about the tightrope walk experience of being a North African (Moroccan) immigrant in France, and about her and her two best friends’ wanderings between these two worlds (mentally and physically alike), which for one of these friends, as well as for the other friend’s brother, ended with a salvo of bullets (in one case, courtesy of Al Qaeda; in the other, at the hands of the French police).
- Shamael Elnoor writes about her experience of traveling to Darfur to interview the spiritual leader of the infamous Janjaweed militia, Musa Hilal, and about being persecuted by the uncle of the Sudanese president (with the presidential nephew’s and the local Islamic clergy’s decidedly more-than-tacit assent).
- Amira Al-Sharif writes about the daily challenges of being one of only a handful of women photojournalists in (even for the Arab world, ultra-conservative) Yemen and about the effect of the civil war that has been raging in that country since 2015.
- Asmaa al-Ghoul writes about the life-changing experience of being both a journalist and a mother in the violence-ridden Palestine Territories, torn apart by religious strife and by the rivalry of the more secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas.
- Heba Shibani writes about male violence and about the near-insurmountable difficulties of telling women’s stories and of keeping an objective stance between the political and religious battle lines in Libya.
- Lina Sinjab tells the inside story of growing up in 1970s’ Syria and, like Zeina Karam (whose story, in turn, begins with her childhood in Beirut and the contrasts between Lebanon and Syria noticeable even then), writes about the experience of the country’s falling apart in the cataclysm of civil war, shortly after Bashar al-Assad had come into power and the short apparent spring of the very early days of his rule exploded into the bullets of police brutality, when he began to show his real face.
- Zaina Erhaim, similarly, writes about the experience of being a photojournalist in Syria — in the middle of a civil war at that.
- Donna Abu-Nasr writes about the vagaries and surprises involved in finding her feet as a woman journalist in Saudia Arabia, of all places, and the changes — subtle at best, unrecognizable at worst to the outsider; but monumental to the local population — which the country has undergone since she first began reporting from there, a decade years ago.
- Roula Khalaf, finally, whose personal experience includes a childhood in civil-war-torn Lebanon and whose career as a reporter began with the 1990s unrest in Algeria, highlights the importance of foreign correspondents, of reporters “on the ground” — of both sexes — even in the age of the internet and social media sites:
“The [foreign correspondent’s] role is vital in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment where events move rapidly and shift unexpectedly. […] In the age of fake news and political manipulation, it is more important than ever for foreign bureaus to be staffed with reporters who develop expertise in a domestic story,”
she writes. And Zahra Hankir says in the book’s introduction:
“A journalistic and historical narrative on the the Arab world and the broader Middle East dominated by male or Western talking heads is, simply put, incomplete. Failing to expand that narrative to sufficiently incorporate the voices of Arab and Middle Eastern women in the global media landscape obstructs an inclusive dissemination of ideas about the region. And yet the public needs precisely that diversity of voices to formulate insightful views on the area and its people.“
All of the contributors to this anthology, incidentally, hold degrees from highly distinguished universities, both in the Middle East and in the West, and most of them have been employed, or are currently still employed, with institutions and news organizations of worldwide renown (New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, CNN, NBC, PBS, Agence France Presse, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Sky News, Foreign Policy magazine, UNICEF, Oxfam International, Reuters, Newsweek, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Financial Times, and Forbes magazine, to name but a few). More than one of them have won high awards of their profession. — But I didn’t pay any attention to their credentials while reading and listening to their stories; rather, I let those stories and their deeply personal experience stand for themselves. For the same reason, I’m not listing any of their individual credentials next to their names: I don’t want to create even a sliver of an appearance of their being appropriated for the West via their Western-owned employers — they simply do not need this. These are stories that should be read, not because they happen to be told by award-winning journalists who have managed to land jobs with world-famous news organizations, but for their authenticity and intrinsic value alone.
Technically, every book that I read counts for this project, so in my month / quarter / year in review posts I tend to highlight only the books by minority authors and / or not written by authors from, or set in, the UK or the U.S. For purposes of this particular update, these books include my Diversity Bingo reads (above), plus, for February and March, three other titles:
Patrick Radden Keefe: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
This was a buddy read with some of my BookLikes exile friends — the inside story of the Northern Ireland conflict, the “Troubles”, from (chiefly) the 1960s up to the Good Friday Agreement and (partways) beyond, inspired and based in part on taped interviews with some of the conflict’s key players recorded in the context of a Boston College project that were intended to remain confidential, but were prematurely forced into the open as a result of police investigations into IRA terrorist activity.
Keefe traces the histories of victims to the conflict, such as the McConville family, whose lives changed dramatically when their mother Jean was abducted (and, it would later turn out, murdered) by IRA terrorists one day out of the blue, leaving behind ten underage children who were ripped apart and, for the most part, only found each other again (and reestablished a more or less tenuous relationship) years later, as severely scarred adults. He traces the histories of several IRA terrorists, with a particular focus on Dolours Price, who together with her sister Marian was convicted to a lengthy prison term for her active participation in the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, and whose case attracted a great deal of notoriety as a result of the Price sisters’ protracted hunger strike in a bid to be transferred from their English prison back to Ireland; as well as Brendan Hughes, Officer Commanding (OC) of the IRA Belfast Brigade and, like Dolours Price — according to Keefe’s account, based on interviews with both of them — one of the persons directly involved in Jean McConville’s abduction and murder. (There’s also quite a bit about the role played by Gerry Adams in the context of the Troubles, and the question whether or not he was ever a member of the IRA himself — Adams vigorously denies it, Price and Hughes equally vigorously assert that he was.) And Keefe tells the story of the “Belfast Project” at Boston College, devised to create a record of the “Troubles” by way of interviews with the key players on the IRA side, who were assured confidentiality and were told that their interview tapes would only be released after their deaths; only to find that these promises had not been made legally waterproof and thus ultimately didn’t stand up to a challenge brought by the UK police authorities seeking access to the interviews as prosecution evidence.
In terms of narrative approach, the one thing that struck me from the beginning, and which stayed with me right until the end of the book, was that Keefe is very, very obviously an investigative journalist, not a historian: He plunges you right into one particular moment — the crucial moment in the collective lives of one specific family, the McConvilles; victims of the conflict (would it be cynical to say “victims, of course, this being a book by an investigative journalist”?), which he relates in great detail and with an enormous sense of urgency, and he builds essentially his entire narrative from there. This makes for an incredible amount of immediacy in the reading experience; and given that we are talking about events that, for a substantial part of Keefe’s readers, never were something that impinged on their personal lives — not even by way of nightly newscasts –, it was probably a wise choice to frame the narrative that way. The downside of this approach is that if you haven’t witnessed, in your own lifetime, the decades of conflict that he describes, and you know little about Ireland’s history (the Republic of Ireland’s, Northern Ireland’s and the island’s history generally), at some point the narrative is bound to get confusing, even if (as Keefe does) the author focuses chiefly on tracing the history of a select number of individuals and events.
To me, the book brought back the memory of a constant stream of newscasts of bombings, bloodshed, tears, suffering, a community torn apart by sectarian hatred, and the desperate question “How can this still be happening, in the otherwise peaceful (Western) Europe that our parents and we ourselves built out of the ashes of WWII — how can this be happening in our modern day and age?” Even though growing up I didn’t personally know anybody in Ireland yet (though my BFF had friends in Dublin), next to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the 1995 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) brought about the seminal change of the world in which I had come of age. By 1995 (indeed, even by 1989), I had long embarked on my path into professional life, and had considered myself to have left childhood behind even longer; as a matter of fact, my very first career experience directly involved the restructuring of the justice and legal system on the Berlin end of what had been socialist East Germany and was now to be integrated into the unified Germany’s overall structure. Yet, looking back it is hard not to lump 1989 and 1995 together as one single dividing line between my childhood and adulthood and give way to a blanket association of the Cold War and the unresolved Northern Ireland conflict with my childhood experience, and the post-Cold-War world (with its very own horrors that would soon unfold in Rwanda, once more on European soil in the former Yugoslavia, and in countless wars, civil wars, and genocide campaigns the world over since) with my adult life.
However, Say Nothing is far more a book of reminiscences of a long-gone conflict; in fact, it couldn’t be any more timely. As a consequence of Brexit, and of the wholly insufficient way in which the last-minute agreements are addressing the “Northern Ireland issue”, the old battle lines that were believed to have finally been buried by the GFA are again rearing their ugly heads.* The rhetoric on both sides of the Northern Irish conflicts has already heated up, and even bombs and other acts of violence have made a return appearance. So this book comes as a very useful reminder as to what a monumental achievement the GFA really is, and just what is being put into peril as a result of Brexit. (In fact, I went through large passages of wanting to yell at those responsible for the current mess: “Is this really what you want to go back to??”) If I nevertheless ultimately withheld a star from my rating it was because, for the reasons stated further above, I think the book would have benefited from an effort to place the Troubles, and the specific incidents related, into a focused historical perspective — not of the entire history of Ireland, of course, but of the political and social origins of the conflict, which is, after all, about much more than religious or national affiliation; which in turn, however, is not something you learn from Keefe’s book (in fact, reading Say Nothing, the wider social, economic, and political implications of the Troubles don’t appear as part of the picture at all).
Still and all, this book comes highly recommended. And for those interested in a perspective that does place the conflict into a historical, economic, social and legal perspective, I recommend Carol Daugherty Rasnic’s Northern Ireland: Can Sean and John Live in Peace?
* For those who’ve been lucky enough not to have to follow this quite as closely: Northern Ireland is part of the UK, which as a result of the Brexit vote has left the EU; BUT as an integral part of the GFA Northern Ireland enjoys a special “open borders” relationship with the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member. The UK, the Republic of Ireland and the U.S. (as a guarantor) are signatories to the GFA and bound by its terms; the EU has incorporated the GFA into its own legal framework. The Republic of Ireland, the U.S., and the EU are adamant that the GFA — and the peace and prosperity that it has brought — must not under any circumstances be put into peril as a consequence of Brexit. The UK government, in turn, doesn’t want a border “in the Irish Sea”, i.e. between Ireland and “mainland” UK; it does however want the “regular” border coming with Brexit between all of the UK (including Northern Ireland) and all of the EU (including the Republic of Ireland) — which directly conflicts with the provisions of the GFA. The issue has been addressed by a set of temporary provisions — the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol — in the Brexit agreements cobbled together literally at the last minute in December 2020 (trying to prevent the even greater catastrophe of a flat-out “no deal” Brexit, which was then looming on the horizon as of January 1, 2021), but judging by what is reported in the news and by trade experts and insiders, these provisions are working anything but seamlessly, which given the complexities both of the legal framework involved and of the practicalities of its implementation, does not exactly come as a surprise to anybody who has spent even a fraction of a brain cell thinking about the issue. Moreover, in the time between July 2016 (Brexit vote) and December 2020, the Brexiteers’ and UK government’s conflicting and often flat-out nonsensical rhetoric on the issue had already created a huge sense of insecurity in Ireland — NI especially, but also the Republic –; and of course the wobbly implementation of the December 2020 Northern Ireland Protocol and other Brexit agreements only adds further to that insecurity. As does the fact that in the few weeks and months since December 2020, there have already been several severe spats between the UK government and the EU over details of the implementation of said agreements, with both sides repeatedly threatening litigation (and the EU actually giving formal notice of its intent to initiate litigation over one particular issue in mid-March 2021).
Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
The third and final part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s narrative of his three-year trek on foot, begun more or less spontaneously at the tender age of eighteen, from the Hoek of Holland to Constantinople. Unlike the first two parts (A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water), which cover his wanderings in Holland, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia (A Time of Gifts), as well as Hungary and Western Romania / Transylvania (Between the Woods and the Water), this third part was not completed and published during Leigh Fermor’s lifetime: for a variety of reasons he struggled with the completion of this last part of the narrative, which was left unfinished at his death and was ultimately brought to completion by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, and fellow travel writer Colin Thubron, who — with great skill, restraint, and respect for what they knew or discerned as the author’s intent — forged together a cohesive whole from the various fragments, drafts, and bits of surviving diary that he had left behind.
As such, this is in part a somewhat “rawer” narrative than the first two books, allowing the reader, on occasion, closer glimpses into Leigh Fermor’s soul (for the first time, we learn about occasional bouts of homesickness and melancholia); also, while we do actually reach Constantinople (Istanbul) at last, the city itself hardly impinges on the book’s contents, which instead ends with an extended account of Leigh Fermor’s visit of the Mount Athos monasteries. However, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s narrative voice comes through as glorious as ever; like in the first two books, he takes us swirling and gliding on a current of exquisitely rendered observations, historical and social commentary, imagery, linguistic asides, and encounters with this polyglott author’s vast collection of friends, acquaintances, and casual encounters from all origins and walks of life, down from the Iron Gates along the Danube, across the mountains, plains, multicultural cities, and Orthodox monasteries of Bulgaria, to Bucharest and Eastern Romania, and finally into Macedonia and the mysteries of Mount Athos — never mind being severely hobbled by a nail that had buried itself in his foot somewhere in the wilds of Bulgaria and other disasters, such as almost drowning on the Macedonian coast — and crossing, along the way, cultural and linguistic boundaries that in the multifaceted hodge-podge and serpentine highways and byways of the history of the Eastern Balkans never quite seem to have aligned with national borders and identities (and they still don’t).
I was sorry to reach the end of the journey when I had finished the book — it did, however, provide for an unexpected “buddy read” experience with my mom, which proved a delight not merely for its own sake but also because only a few months ago, I’d have declared anybody predicting this sort of thing flat out insane: My mom has increasingly been struggling with her eyesight in recent years, and essentially abandoned any and every book she started on the grounds that it made her eyes ache too much to enjoy the reading experience. So, when last summer, after having read Between the Woods and the Water, I gave her a photocopied excerpt dealing with the German-speaking part of Transylvania (the childhood home of an acquaintance of ours), all I had been expecting was a brief enjoyment and a comment such as “very interesting, thank you for sharing this.” Instead, she began to barrage me with questions about the author and his journey, so I ended up giving her A Time of Gifts … and in (for her) short order, some two months later, had to follow up with the urgently-requested full version of the journey’s second part (Between the Woods and the Water) and, ultimately, with this final part, which at the time I had yet to read myself, too, and which thus brought about the aforementioned buddy read experience. But not only that: in the interim, my mom has also gobbled up W. Stanley Moss’s account of his and PLF’s WWII “Kreipe abduction” mission on Crete (Ill Met by Moonlight), Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and this past weekend she embarked on his correspondence with Deborah (Mitford) Devonshire (In Tearing Haste). In other words, my mom (born a few years after PLF finally reached Constantinople) is downright fangirling over the man … and it completely cracks me up; in all the best ways, of course.
Robert van Gulik (transl.) & Anonymous: Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Gong An)
This was “technically” a reread, but as unlike Robert van Gulik’s series of mysteries that were inspired by this book, I had not actually revisited the original novel itself in a minor eternity, almost all of it felt as fresh and new as if I had been reading it for the very first time.
Although writing detective stories was, apparently (as van Gulik explains in his extensive comments on the novel) quite a popular pastime with retired magistrates in 18th century China, most of these books — van Gulik goes on to say — would not have been of great interest to a Western audience; not only would they essentially have to be rewritten entirely in order to bridge the existing ocean-wide cultural gulf; they also had a different structure than the one we are most accustomed in the West: Rather than constituting a battle of wits between the author (or the detective) and the reader, they chronicle a battle of wits between the detective (the investigating magistrate) and the culprit in a fashion similar to what we have, in the interim, come to know as “inverted” mysteries, i.e. mysteries where the murderer is known from the word “go” (think Columbo and the novels written by Anthony Berkeley under the pseudonym Francis Iles). This book, van Gulik explains, seemed a more proximate choice at the time of its translation, not only because it involves the type of investigation that we know well from the Golden Age tradition of Agatha Christie and her contemporaries (a puzzle type whodunit, howdunit and whydunit), but also because it is very precise in its application of the relevant provisions of the penal code, the 7th century Tang Code, which was essentially consistent with the code in force at the time when this book was written (the Qing Code), some 1100 years after the events constituting the novel’s plot; so in essence, the same penal rules applied in China for well over a millennium. (For perspective: This would be equivalent to a medieval Western ruler issuing a penal code that had turned out so well-reasoned, fair, and overall serviceable, that — never mind any and all intervening historical, social, political and economic upheavals, such as the American and French Revolutions, and the associated advances in political and legal thinking — we would still consider it perfectly adequate to apply today.) I don’t know a lot about the Tang Code, but not only in comparison with Western penal codes, even some of those compiled several centuries later, it does indeed seem to have been a remarkably advanced and well-structured piece of legislation.
So, this turned out quite a revelation on a whole number of grounds. Structurally, it sets the model which van Gulik, in the series of mysteries that he later wrote himself, inspired by this book, would come to follow as well, in positing a number of unrelated cases that Judge Dee solves more or less simultaneously. (According to the Tang Code, a Judge was both the investigating magistrate and the official eventually trying the case.) One of the cases in this book does at least come close to an inverted mystery after all, in that Judge Dee has a very firm opinion as to the guilty party from the start — what considerably vexes him is that he can’t discover the “how” and “why” –; with the interesting procedural sidelight, however, that in the event of a wrongful prosecution not only the defendant’s accuser (the witness who originally brought the case to the judge’s attention), but also the judge himself stood to receive the same penalty as that awaiting the defendant if found guilty: in a murder case, the death penalty … and at one point, believing himself unable to bring the crime home to the person he privately still considers the guilty party, Judge Dee indeed sees no other way than to accuse himself of wrongful prosecution in his report to his superior magistrate. — In the other two cases, the investigation follows similar patterns as those we know from most Western mysteries; the main difference being, perhaps, that the book’s author does not see an early introduction of the true criminal as a major priority; although this does not make the guilty party’s revelation a matter of deus ex machina. Rather, in all three cases the outcome is the product of an investigation following a logical progression of intellectual and investigative steps; plus, in one case in particular, a remarkable feat of imaginative brainwork on Judge Dee’s part that easily shows him the equal of the Western world’s Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. (This case even shares one other highly distinctive feature with one of Sherlock Holmes’s most celebrated cases.)
One content warning has to be given: The Tang Code, advanced and balanced as it was in many other respects (especially considering when it was first promulgated), did allow certain forms of torture to bring about a confession (with strict limitations, but to a defendant subjected to these measures, that would obviously not have made one iota of difference); and similarly, there were more or less painful methods of administering the death penalty. And although van Gulik asserts that another reason why he chose this book is that it doesn’t revel half as much as many of its contemporaries in the administration of these procedures, there are scenes — comparatively brief, true, but still — where the reader learns what precisely is done to the accused, and is not left in the slightest doubt just how painful these procedures are. I ultimately took those passages as part of the historical document, and my overall rating is as much one of van Gulik’s scholarship and the excellence of his translation as it applies to the translated work as such (which, after all, I have to take on faith anyway), but if this sort of thing overly bothers you, you’re probably better served with van Gulik’s later original mysteries, which (though not entirely eschewing the issue) are just a tad gentler to modern Western sensibilities.
Appointment with Agatha
Appointment with Agatha is a Goodreads group read project, inspired by the October 2020 centenary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. As part of this project, since October 2020, we are reading all of Agatha Christie’s full-length novels in the order of their publication, plus a monthly topical “side read” by another Golden or Silver Age mystery author.
Agatha Christie’s Novels
January 2021: The Man in the Brown Suit — Review HERE.
The Secret of Chimneys
Oh, I would love to love this book so much more than I ultimately do. There Christie goes and takes me on a merry romp in the spirit of The Secret Adversary (whose plot, let’s face it, is every bit as implausible as that of The Secret of Chimneys), complete with adventurers, mysterious manuscript and letters, and the adorable Bundle Brent (of whom we’ll fortunately be seeing much more in The Seven Dials Mystery) … and then she ruins it all in the final reveal.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
It’s hard to say anything about this book without spoiling it in a major way (I’ll try, but no guarantees whatsoever); and of course there are enormous risks in extrapolating from a book to the author’s internal and external life, and again of course I may be completely, utterly wrong, and maybe I’m overthinking this in a big way to begin with. But still. I can’t shake the feeling that Christie, while writing this novel, wasn’t at all sure where she herself was as a person: still the would-be intrepid adventurer who, not so long ago, had joined the British Empire Expedition, gone surfing and jungle-exploring in South Africa — and exploring some more in Australia and New Zealand, and surfing again in Hawaii — and returned home a year later, penniless but so much richer in experience … or the responsible wife and mother that she had been expected to become once she had “settled down”, and that maybe she felt she had to be (at least the “mother” part of it) once it became clear that her husband certainly wasn’t the responsible element in her marriage? Whatever it is — this sort of unresolved conflict on the part of the author herself or something else — ultimately there is a contradiction that shows in this book which Christie seems to have been unable to resolve satisfactorily, and which ultimately impacts this book in a fateful way.
Facially, the book’s narrator, Anthony Cade, is a brother in spirit to the man who sweeps the heroine of Christie’s previous novel (The Man in the Brown Suit) off her feet, to settle once and for all on an island in the middle of a river in the wilds of South Africa. Some participants of the “Appointment with Agatha” group read compared Anthony to Cary Grant; others, who had picked up on his public school (Eton, etc.) voice, rejected that. Ultimately (and staying within the confines of this survey of my own recent reading), perhaps it would be more accurate to compare him to the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor: A man born to privilege and to a British public school education, but who deliberately rejects that privilege in favor of a life of adventure. (PLF’s three-year walk all across Europe to Constantinople was his response to having been unceremoniously dumped, permanently, by his own public school for essentially breaking every rule in its book (repeatedly), and only the first venture of a lifetime of travel “off the beaten path”. The Kreipe abduction was by far not his only high-risk venture during WWII. And he never returned to England for good, even though he ended up owning a house and spending part of the year there in later life — he lived a life of travel literally until his dying day and considered Greece, where he spent most of his time from WWII on, his true home. Moreover, although his friends included members of the class into which he was born, he was famous for forming close friendships easily and indiscriminately, regardless of the other person’s origin and social status; this, too, is something from which his travel writing benefited enormously.) Or, to pick an example from an African setting, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Beryl Markham‘s lover Denys Finch-Hatton — BUT not in his real life persona, but as incarnated by Robert Redford in the movie Out of Africa, a casting choice that director Sydney Pollack explained in an interview included in the movie’s DVD release by stating that he couldn’t have cared less about Finch-Hatton’s aristocratic background; all he was interested in was the adventurer, and at the time of the movie’s production there was no actor who stood more iconically for that type of man than Redford. — And like the Patrick Leigh Fermors and Denys-Finch-Hatton-as-portrayed-by-Robert-Redfords of this world, and also quite a number of the characters portrayed by Cary Grant, Anthony Cade has deliberately rejected his class privilege and chosen the uncertain life of an adventurer instead, sustained periods of downright poverty included: in fact, we first meet him as a tour guide to a group of travelers who, at this point, are quite obviously in vastly safer financial straits and decidedly more comfortable with their privileged status than he himself.
Now, in the final reveal, we then learn that this is not who Anthony Cade is at all. BUT what superficially seems like a logical reveal if you only look at his public school voice just doesn’t gel with the essence of this sort of character. The Patrick Leigh Fermors and Denys-Finch-Hatton-as-portrayed-by-Robert-Redfords of this world don’t simply, at some convenient moment, make an about-face and settle down to precisely the sort of life they have previously rejected — not even if (as we are told happens in Anthony Cade’s case) their original reasons for rejecting a settled, privileged life no longer hold true. Rather, they either die while still comparatively young in the middle of one of their adventures (as Denys Finch-Hatton actually did) or, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, they never entirely settle down at all — it’s just not in their nature. Because leading an adventurer’s life, ultimately, is not a matter of ideology (marxist, anti-aristocratic, progressive, or what-have-you); it’s a matter of character and inclination. And if you’re constitutionally adverse to being tied down to a sedentary lifestyle — let alone the narrowly circumscribed life that Anthony seems to be embracing wholeheartedly at the end of The Secret of Chimneys — you won’t ever be comfortable even trying to live that sort of life. Agatha Christie understood this very well — we know this because that’s precisely the reasoning that Anne Beddingfeld (an adventuress herself) and her husband-to-be give for their choice of abode and lifestyle at the end of The Man in the Brown Suit. So, long story short and never mind the public school voice, I simply can’t buy the final reveal of The Secret of Chimneys, and I’m literally left wondering “what the heck was Christie thinking?” every time I get to that point.
Anthony Cade aside, The Secret of Chimneys introduces us to several of Christie’s minor recurring characters, chief among them the unstoppable Bundle Brent, who gets way too little page time here, her scatterbrained but lovable father Lord Caterham, as well as the unflappable Superintendent Battle; and they are definitely among the highlights of this book. As is Virginia Revel, whom Christie sets up as Anthony’s love interest early on, and whose independent spirit and sophistication indeed do make her a good match for him (if any woman can bridge the unresolved contradiction built into his character, that woman is Victoria Revel).
I am glad that Christie decided to return to Hercule Poirot for her next novel, though. She clearly had some issues to work out that affected her writing, at least with regard to the books falling partly outside the straightforward mystery genre, and whatever it was she needed to resolve, it’s a good thing that she decided to do it “off stage.”
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Well, talk about a book that you really cannot discuss without sticking spoiler warnings onto it right, left and center! Christie was initially raked over the coals for its solution — and while her fellow mystery authors stoutly stood by her, it strikes me that it actually does break at least one of [Ronald] Knox’s Ten Commandments in the most major way imaginable — but people ended up imitating her in droves, so she can’t have been so totally wrong after all. For me personally, this remains one of the absolute highlights of the Hercule Poirot series, and I am surprised, upon every reread anew, just how cleverly written it is. I don’t want to preface yet another review by “spoilers, read on at your own peril”, so I’m just going to limit myself to the summary of the mystery’s setup that I wrote a minor eternity ago for my survey of the Poirot series starring David Suchet:
As the story’s title indicates, the case centers around Roger Ackroyd, an industrialist, the richest man in his home village of King’s Abbot and “more impossibly like a country squire than any country squire could really be,” as village doctor James Sheppard describes him in the novel. When he is found murdered, Poirot finds himself compelled to step out of a rather prematurely-chosen retirement, to investigate Ackroyd’s death … as well as its connection to that of Ackroyd’s friend, the only recently-widowed Mrs. Ferrars.
For as it happens, only a short while before his industrialist friend Ackroyd’s death, Poirot had removed himself to the country, where he had resolved to, henceforth, devote his life to the singular pursuit of growing the perfect vegetable marrow. And the detective’s chosen place of retirement is the very village that Roger Ackroyd had called his home, too: King’s Abbot, an archetypal English village like those that would later become so crucial to Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, the first of which – Muder at the Vicarage – was published in 1930, four years after this particular novel; and Christie later said that both the setting of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the character of Dr. Sheppard’s spinsterish sister were elements she had enjoyed writing so much that she had instantly resolved to explore them in greater depth in a separate book.
January 2021: Murder by Transport — Martin Edwards (ed.) & Various Authors: Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries — Review HERE.
February 2021: Murder and Politics
Graham Greene: The Third Man (and The Fallen Idol)
If you’re coming to this book from having watched the movie starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard (as you arguably should — Greene wrote the novella as a preliminary exercise for the screenplay), probably the first thing that is going to stand out to you is the changed perspective: Whereas the movie closely tracks the writer, Martins (whose first name is Holly in the screenplay, Rollo in the novella), the novella is written from the POV of Major Calloway. It thus adds another level, and at the same time distances the reader from the action in a way that the movie doesn’t (and arguably can’t): The movie is all about Martins’s search for the truth about Harry Lime, and the shattering of the writer’s wide-eyed, naive illusions about the man he used to consider his best and most unselfish friend, and who now turns out to be anything but. The novella, on the other hand, presents the events that constitute the entirety of the film as merely one episode — albeit a particularly memorable one — in Major Calloway’s post-WWII military police stint in Vienna, with plenty of commentary on the city’s four-sector status under the four victorious powers’ (U.S., UK, France, and Russia) joint administration of the city. And whereas in the movie, it is chiefly the black and white cinematography, Harry Lime’s abject cynicism, and the iconic zither score that makes for a “classic noir” atmosphere, in the novella it is foremost the considerable cynicism of Calloway himself that creates this impression. For me this worked rather well; maybe in part because to a limited extent I can relate, as the city where I’m born and where I spent my early childhood (plus a decade of my adult life), Berlin, from 1949 to 1990 was subject to the same sort of “four victorious powers” administration, not just technically (even after West Berlin had gained the full status of a West German state, with an independent administration of its own, you were still aware that unlike in the rest of West Germany, there was a higher and foreign authority that needed to be taken into account; and until the end it mattered whether you were moving in the American, British, or French sector — not to mention the Russian sector, of course, which had become East Berlin and, as such, the capital of East Germany). Either way, the novella and the movie complement each other rather well.
The audio edition that I listened to combines The Third Man with a short story with essentially the same theme: as the story’s title (The Fallen Idol) suggests, it, too, deals with the shattering of illusions; in this instance, those of a small boy about a domestic servant to whom he had been looking up like to a father figure, but who in the space of a single day reveals himself to be as unworthy of the boy’s hero-worship as he can possibly be. Like in the movie The Third Man, the story is told from the perspective of the person whose illusions are being destroyed, and here Greene uses that perspective — further limited in that it is that of a small child, with a necessarily limited understanding of the world as such — to very great effect.
March 2021: Village Setting
Ellis Peters: Fallen Into the Pit
The group actually selected Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors as the official March 2021 side read, but as that is one of my favorite novels by Dorothy L. Sayers and one of my annual Christmas reads, I opted for the runner-up, Ellis Peters’s first “Felse investigation” instead. And I am so glad that I did!
Next to Brother Cadfael, George Felse and his son Dominic are Ellis Peters’s best-known series protagonists. George Felse is still a police sergeant in this book, Dominic is on the point of entering teenage life; yet, with higher-ranking police inspectors only to be found in the next market town, it falls to George Felse to do the legwork on this book’s investigation (he will be promoted to inspector later in the series) — though virtually all clues, including the final one, are provided by Dominic (much to George’s chagrin, both as a parent and as a policeman).
The book is set in a coal mining village on the Welsh boarder (presumably in Peters’s native Shropshire) shortly after the end of WWII; and Peters had me virtually from the word “go”, with a highly insightful rendition of postwar life in a small rural community, where the lives of those who have experienced the war in the confines of the village have to be harmonized with the war experience of the returning soldiers (and vice versa), and the former soldiers, in trying to find their way back into civilian life, have to somehow come to terms with the horrors they have seen — and in part, themselves committed — on the battlefield and otherwise as active participants of a war that they hadn’t even wanted to join in the first place.
And as if these weren’t complexities enough for the village population to deal with, further contentions arise out of a dispute over coal mining rights on a piece of land owned by one of the pillars of the village community and, particularly, in connection with the unsettling personality of a German ex-prisoner of war who has remained in the village after the end of his detention: a man who has never abandoned his Nazi ideology and beliefs; the perfect example of the type of personality sometimes described as a “cyclist” — bending his back, wheedling and subservient in the face of authority, but a vicious bully only too happy to kick and trample down on any- and everybody whom he perceives as weaker than himself; yet clever enough to turn any situation to his own advantage and make himself appear as the victim if caught in an altercation. In other words, the kind of person who, in a mystery, you’re just waiting to be killed — and when he is, there is no shortage of potential suspects.
Peters brings to George Felse’s investigation the same sensibilities that also characterize her Cadfael novels; what I particularly appreciated, though, was the way in which she shows that while the Nazi bully’s death at first blush seems to be a benefit to the community, it really isn’t, because as long as the murderer hasn’t been found, everybody remains under suspicion, including each and every innocent member of the village population (i.e., 99+%) — a point that Agatha Christie repeatedly makes as well (most notably in Ordeal by Innocence). As it is, the murder threatens to pull the community apart even more than the uneasy postwar situation and the dispute about mining rights are already doing anyway; it soon becomes clear that only the discovery of the murderer will allow the community to heal once and for all. So Felse is caught in the dilemma of not wanting to have to charge any of his friends and neighbors with murder — he likes them, and they really are, all of them, extremely likeable people — and knowing, at the same time, that he really wouldn’t be doing them any favor if he were to drop the investigation and refrain from rummaging about in their private lives. Then a second murder happens, and it is ultimately this second murder (as well as the identity of the murderer) that drives home the point that even the apparent benefit which the first murder seemed to bestow on the community (by removing, once and for all, the vicious bully in its midst) really was no benefit at all: not only did it end up causing additional rifts instead of healing the existing ones, it was not committed with the mistaken intention to benefit the community in the first place.
If I’m withholding a half-star rating from the full five stars I’d otherwise much have liked to give the book, it’s because not only is it Dominic Felse (not his father, the police inspector) who makes virtually every important discovery; and moreover, every single one of his discoveries is an accidental one — altogether decidedly too much reliance on the element of chance on the part of the author. I hope the series’s first book is not setting a pattern as far as this is concerned; if it is, the subsequent novels are almost certainly going to get a lower rating on this score alone. — That said, I’d initially contemplated moving onto the next installments of the series immediately, but found that the only characters who make a reappearance there are the Felses themselves (George, Dominic, and George’s wife / Dominic’s mother Bunty), and while I genuinely like all three of them, I was sorry to find upon sneak-peeking that none of my other favorite characters in this book — PTSD-scarred classics master turned wartime expert assassin turned, once again, classics master Chad Wedderburn and Dominic’s almost-love-interest, a girl with the impossibly 1950s nickname “Pussy” — are featured in the next books. So I’m going to wait a little, after all, until I’ll join the Felses for their next investigation, but I’m definitely going to be back for more eventually.
In a way, the Appointment with Agatha “side reads” tie in neatly with my own Detection Club reading project; notwithstanding that so far, with the exception of Ellis Peters’s Fallen into the Pit, I was already familiar with most of the books selected. While my own reading project does have the members of the “actual” Detection Club at its core (and of course, Agatha Christie was a founder member of that most illustrious of all crime writers’ societies), it effectively extends to any and all books and authors discussed by the current Detection Club president and chief historian, Martin Edwards, either in The Golden Age of Murder or in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (reading list HERE); as well as to Golden Age crime fiction as such, particularly as recently republished in the British Library Classic Crime series — edited by Martin Edwards — or by publishers such as HarperCollins, Dean Street Press, and Arcturus Press. This latter aspect, in turn, makes for a natural overlap with the Appointment with Agatha “side reads”.
I managed to advance my personal Detection Club reading project by three additional books in the first three months of this year:
January 2021: J.J. Connington: Mystery at Lynden Sands — Review HERE.
Anna Katharine Green: The Leavenworth Case
Sigh. Can you believe that in my Golden Age mystery quest I actually acquired three different editions of this book … only to be but marginally entertained by it? Oh well.
The Leavenworth Case was one of the first-ever detective novels, even predating Sherlock Holmes by almost a decade … and it was written by a woman. So, color me more than a little interested going in. Unfortunately, my interest waned fairly quickly, and it never really picked up again. Structurally, this book anticipates the classic Holmes / Watson and Poirot / Hastings setup: A master detective (here: Ebenezer Gryce) is joined by an acolyte of altogether more pedestrian gifts (here: a young lawyer named Everett Raymond) through whose eyes we are witnessing the unfolding of the plot (here: the investigation of the murder of a New York industrialist named Horatio Leavenworth and of the disappearance of a female servant from his household).
Well, in this type of setup it is kind of crucial — for me, anyway — that the narrator be someone whom I can like. And while I like Watson, who isn’t half the idiot that Nigel Bruce made him appear in the movies starring Basil Rathbone (give me David Burke and Edward Hardwicke any day of the week), and I can like Captain Hastings as long as I think of him as portrayed by Hugh Fraser … I found Mr. Raymond rather an eyeroll-inducing ninny early on, and he studiously avoided every single opportunity to redeem himself later on. Then we got to the women, the victim’s nieces and heir(esse)s-apparent, Eleanore and Mary — and while there are instances where it becomes clear that Green thought she was portraying them as intelligent and advanced, essentially what we’re getting is the stereotypical 19th century “sensational novel” female: given to fainting fits and exaggerated anxieties, gratefully accepting male patronage, and bitterly regretful of what they later come to see as their younger selves’ shameful exhibitions of undue selfishness and independence. Good Lord. And this not even a decade and a half before the appearance of The Woman and Sherlock Holmes’s other female adversaries and plucky clients (all of them creations of a male writer), not to mention three short decades after the Brontë sister’s works, even less time since the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s, in the same decade as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, before the mourning shoes for Anne Bradstreet’s death were old, while Emily Dickinson was still alive and breathing poetry … and within little more than half a century of Jane Austen. (Oh yeah, and there is a bit of racism, too, but really, compared to the portrayal of the women it hardly even impinges; indeed, for the period it’s almost negligable.) So: three stars for the novel’s historical significance and for Master Gryce, who displays the patience of a saint vis-à-vis most of his fellow characters — and vis-à-vis the plot, which for all of Green’s serpentine and longwinded style takes about three times as much to unfold as it takes Gryce himself to solve the case. And yes, based on some of Green’s later works that I’ve sampled, I know that she could and did do better later on, so I may even return to this particular series, too, though it’s unlikely that this is going to happen anytime very soon.
Nicholas Blake: Minute for Murder
If I’ve counted correctly, this is the fifth Nigel Strangeways mystery that I’ve read, and — like the sheer inexplicable segue from the stellar Murder of Roger Ackroyd to the beyond-lamentable Big Four at a similar point in the trajectory of Agatha Christie’s career — it is proof positive that there is no such thing as a steady, gradual upwards progression to the quality of a given writer’s work, commensurate with their growing acquisition of writerly skill.
As a mystery, probably only the very first Strangeways novel, A Question of Proof, is weaker than this one, though I liked that first book well enough on grounds of setting, atmosphere and language alone. In their turn, both the Christmas mysteries from the series that I’ve read so far (books 2 and 7, Thou Shell of Death and The Case of the Abominable Snowman) are better than A Question of Proof — and the pinnacle, so far, at least for me, was installment no. 4, The Beast Must Die. Well, you’d think that with seven series installments under his belt (Minute for Murder is Strangeways book no. 8), and when writing about a (ministerial) workplace setting with which he was intimately familiar from daily personal experience, you should at least not be thrown all the way back to comparisons with Blake’s debut as a mystery writer; but alas, that’s just where we are. As far as the technical aspects go (plot construction etc.) as well as in terms of setting and language, this is decidedly up to Blake’s by then established standard, but good grief, the characters’ personal relationships — and this is a book about little else but personal relationships — could have used some serious overhaul. And compared to acknowledged masterpieces of a writer’s getting even with their former work environment, such as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, Blake’s book positively pales, never mind that he can easily hold a candle to Sayers as a master craftsman in the use of the English language.
(Dead) Author Birthdays
This is a reading challenge associated with the (Mostly) Dead Writers Society on Goodreads; I decided to join it because it, too, is as much an invitation to reconnect with the classics as it is one to walk down literary paths less traveled; so it, too, ties in nicely with my own reading goals for this year. Four of the books I read during the first quarter of 2021 were selected with both my Diversity Bingo and this particular challenge on Goodreads in mind:
- January 2021: Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
- February 2021: Toni Morrison: Sula
- March 2021: Gabriel García Márquez: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel, and Other Stories)
- March 2021: Olivia Manning: The Spoilt City
(Dead) Authors in Residence
Another (Mostly) Dead Writers Society challenge; however, one that I decided to mostly sit out in the first quarter of 2021, as one of the two authors voted in for this period was Stella Gibbons, who I decided long ago, after having read Cold Comfort Farm, is most definitely NOT for me. So my only bow to this challenge was revisiting of one of the classics by the other “Q1 / 2021” authors voted for by the group, Alexandre Dumas (père)’s Les trois mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) (review HERE).
I am, however, very much looking forward to exploring / reconnecting with the works of both authors voted in as “authors in residence” for the second quarter of 2021, Ursula K. Le Guin and John Steinbeck.
Other Books, including Comfort Reading
My record with the remaining books I read during the first quarter of 2021 is a mixed bag: The comfort reads delivered as expected (hail Dame Agatha! hail to the authors associated with the Medieval Murderers group!). I also enjoyed — if that is the right term — finally going back to the John Smiley’s very first appearance as an agent of “the Circus” (after having read almost every other book from the series first). Last but not least, I discovered one new mystery series that I will definitely enjoy continuing to read. However, the three remaining books I picked in the past three months turned out considerable disappointments, in at least two of the three cases very much to my surprise.
- Agatha Christie: Crooked House — Review HERE.
- Agatha Christie: The Lie — Review HERE.
- Agatha Christie: A Pocket Full of Rye — Review HERE.
- Agatha Christie: Spider’s Web — Review HERE.
Agatha Christie: A Murder Is Announced
One of my confirmed all-time favorite books not only in the Miss Marple series but in Agatha Christie’s entire body of work.
Like in the case of The Man in the Brown Suit and Crooked House, there currently is an audio double feature available combining The Secret of Chimneys (our “Appointment with Agatha” February 2021 read) and A Murder Is Announced, so it was pretty much a given that I would obtain this edition (even though I already own other print and audio editions of both books individually) and just continue listening when I was done with The Secret of Chimneys.
I reviewed the TV adaptation of this novel from the series starring Joan Hickson eons ago; that review still stands in its entirety and easily also applies to the novel: With the exception of minor details such as a few supporting characters’ names (e.g., Miss Blacklock’s maid, who is called Mitzi in the book, and the cat, who in the book goes by the archaic mouthful appellation of Tiglath Pileser) as well as the (sparing) transformation of some internal monologue into brief pieces of dialogue, that adaptation is excessively faithful to the novel, so I’m just going to point to that review in lieu of writing much the same thing all over again. (Mild spoiler warning as to the number and identity of the killer’s victims: If you don’t want to have that information beforehand, stop reading before you get to the review’s final paragraph. Though the death of the first victim happens early on and is the event on which practically the entire novel hinges, so I don’t consider that particular revelation a spoiler.)
John Le Carré: Call for the Dead
I discovered Le Carré as a teenager; not through any of his Smiley novels but through The Little Drummer Girl (his most recent book at the time), which, in the snobbery that characterizes the German literary scene to this very day, was characterized as a thriller and hence, “entertainment literature” (as opposed to “serious literature” — LitFic and the classics). I decided then and there that distinctions like these were stupid — even I could tell that this was a book by an author intimately familiar not only with his subject (the Israeli / Palestinian conflict) but also, on a personal, face-to-face level, with the key real life players,* and every bit as deserving of close attention as a novel deemed “literary”, on those grounds as well as on the grounds of the statements it made on its chosen topic.
Over the years I became interested chiefly in Le Carré’s books dealing with the Cold War and its immediate aftermath; books such as the later installments of the Smiley cycle and The Russia House, which displayed not only his inside knowledge of the British Secret Service — which was a given (even Stella Rimington, understandably not a particular fan of his, grudgingly acknowledges in her autobiography that his portrayal, albeit not sympathetic, is accurate while managing not to betray any secrets, though on occasion he skirts the line) — but, more than anything else, these books showed his profound understanding of the German speaking world, including and in particular the issues associated with Germany’s Cold War divided status. For one thing, it was clear that in his case, the ability to speak German on a near-mother tongue level was no mere matter of authorial self-promotion: any native speaker who has heard him speak German can attest to the literal truth of that statement, far above and beyond the level that a year at a Swiss university and a few years of intelligence service under diplomatic cover in Bonn would have produced (all the more since the foreign diplomats in Bonn tended not to mix with the local population — I’ve grown up in Bonn when the city was the West German capital and remember those years very well –; indeed, that “we’re a breed apart” attitude is jarringly obvious in A Small Town in Germany, which is incidentally also the one book apt to make you seriously doubt how well Le Carré understood Germany after all). But novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Looking Glass War, and Smiley’s People showed an insight far deeper than that of the ordinary observer of German and Cold War politics (and make the serious conceptional bloopers of A Small Town in Germany even less understandable).
However, I to date I’ve never been particularly interested in George Smiley’s beginnings at “the Circus”. So when I finally did read Call for the Dead after all, I came to it not as someone meeting Smiley for the first time but, rather, as an acquaintance from his Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People days, catching up in a “so anyway, I never asked how …” fashion. And I’m glad I finally did ask. Not only is this hardly recognizable as a first novel from a craftsman’s point of view; Smiley’s character, too, is essentially there already, fully rounded (in more senses than one) and exactly the same person we will meet again later in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People — pudgy, curmudgeonly, an intellectual and a lover of ancient manuscripts, a man whom life seems to have passed by and left somewhere back in pre-WWII Oxbridge, in fact a most unlikely spy altogether (at least to anybody taking James Bond as their model: Smiley is Bond’s antithesis in every single respect), and unhappily caught in what is also one of the most unlikely marriages of literary history. And it is actually with this marriage that the book opens, which I found rather gratifying, as this was one thing about Smiley’s character that I had always found somewhat puzzling — well, now I finally know how that came about, too. In this first book, Le Carré does not yet venture outside of Britain as far as the core setting is concerned; but “the German theatre” already plays a major role in terms of background — and the recurring pattern of Smiley leaving “the Circus” only to be asked back in one constellation or another is already set as well. The plot, which concerns the sudden death of an agent whom Smiley had been asked to “interview” (read: investigate) for his presumed communist leanings, is not yet anywhere near as complex as those of Le Carré’s later books, nor quite as convincing for that matter, but it hangs together as a consistent whole; and I was rather pleased to also meet Mendel already in this first book, who will be of such instrumental help to Smiley later on (particularly in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
* And indeed he was; the story, e.g., how he got to meet Yassir Arafat, as told decades later in The Pigeon Tunnel, is a riveting adventure in and of itself and not something I’d necessarily have wanted to experience myself.
S.J. Rozan: China Trade
A monumental shout-out to Hobart, aka The Irresponsible Reader, for bringing this series to my attention by reviewing some of its installments in the good old BookLikes days. I know that I am shamefully late to the party, but now that I’m finally here, I’m here to stay.
China Trade is the first book of S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series: Told alternatively from either of the two protagonists’ perspectives, the series chronicles the investigations of a New York-based pair of detectives — in this first installment, manifestly not (yet?) a couple, though Bill would very much like that to change. China Trade is narrated from Lydia’s POV and concerns a burglary, fraud, and murder(s) associated with a collection of Chinese pottery that had been left to a small, charity-based neighborhood museum. As a police (or rather, private detective) procedural, the novel is competently enough written, but what truly stands out here is Lydia’s background as a Chinese American, and her inner conflict of being, on the one hand, the unmarried daughter of a traditional Chinese family, still living at home, constantly having to appease her haranguing mother and her attorney brother (who of course does not live at home any longer — he’s a man, why should he?), doing her share of household chores, and battling the expectation that she will soon “settle down”, leave “that nonsense” (her detective agency) behind and finally get married — and on the other hand, living the life of a private detective in a modern American metropolis, moving between racial and, in this novel, tong (Chinese mob) battle lines, asking uncomfortable questions of powerful people who have absolutely no desire to answer them, and knowingly risking her own life and taking the risk of physical violence of the most vicious sort (the traces of which she will then somehow have to hide from her family, if she wants to avoid the additional ordeal of yet another grilling at the hands of her mother and her brother as to her nonsensical, sinful ways and the preferability of marriage and family life, which after all is the preordained, expected path for a Chinese woman of marriageable to begin with). All this comes across with a great deal of authenticity — which is an even greater authorial feat as Rozan has no Chinese background herself whatsoever — and although I know that half the books are told from Bill’s not Lydia’s perspective, it is this in particular which makes me look forward to the series’s further installments. (Well, OK, now that I’ve met him, I do also want to find out more about Bill … and his take on Lydia, of course.)
Shaun Bythell: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops
This was actually a holdover from February — I had already started the book once but stopped reading after chapter 1, teetering on the verge of a DNF, before ultimately deciding “just finish it; it’s short, what the heck” one Sunday morning in early March when I had awoken uncharacteristically early and didn’t feel like getting up just yet.
I had bought this book as a sort of test balloon for Bythell’s first two (longer) books, of which I had read excerpts, but not yet the full-length works. The bottom line is that I can see this sort of thing working as a series of blog posts (which is in fact where Bythell’s first book originated) — i.e., essentially opinion pieces of a highly personal nature that are typically (except if written by a bestselling author) only read by a circumscribed audience, even if that audience comprises a few thousand or even a several ten thousand readers (as it may do with successful bloggers). But as a book — something addressed to a much wider public than most blog posts? Well, let’s just say that at least this specific book ended up confirming all of the things I had feared wouldn’t work for me. And this may very well be a(nother) matter of “it’s not you, book, it’s me”. Anyway, though, we all have our professional ethics; and by those governing my line of work, and which have formed my way of thinking for the past several decades, what Bythell does here (essentially, “classifying” customers and either moaning about them or setting them up for ridicule — in part collectively, but in more than one case with a high degree of individual recognizeability, too, at least for others who actually have met these people in turn) would be highly unethical in my line of work. You obviously don’t have to like your clients, neither individually nor collectively; and yes, there certainly are plenty of “awful client” (and “awful judge”, “awful colleague”, etc.) stories that lawyers can and do tell, too; it’s a large part of what passes for “talking shop” — behind closed doors and while shielding the portrayed pesons’ privacy and studiously omitting from the narration any individual features that would make the people concerned recognizable. Yet, the simple truth is that (especially if, like Bythell, you own the business you’re running) these are the people who are paying for everything from your daily meals to your mortgage, your car, and your kids’s school (if you have children), not to mention being essential to the survival and future of your business. And if you dislike 7 out of 8 of these people as much as Bythell seems to do, for all the purportedly satirical nature of his description (the only good, indeed, the “perfect” customer is tagged onto the seven more or less awful or ridiculous kinds as an afterthought in the postscript), then maybe, just maybe it’s not just the customers but you yourself, too. Because surely for a lover of books there must be other jobs in the book industry where you don’t have this amount of exposure to the worst that the reading, or the book-buying, or the seeking-shelter-inside-a-bookstore-without-buying-anything public has to offer?
Again, I do realize that this is intended as satire (even as lighthearted satire), Bythell himself acknowledges — in all sincerity, too — the basic unfairness of the very categorization he is undertaking, and as I said, I can actually see this sort of thing working well for me as a series of blog posts: Hey, which book lover (and which lover of the absurd) doesn’t enjoy the occasional eyeroll-inducing anecdote about encounters with illiterate or otherwise annoying people who, for whatever inconceivable reasons, have blundered into a bookstore? (Not least because that sort of thing makes us all feel soooo superior about ourselves and our own erudition …) This is true all the more to the extent that being fed individual anecdotes also means that we don’t have to wonder constantly where in these seven circles of a bookseller’s hell we personally might end up finding ourselves. But there is something about Bythell’s tone in this book that, together with the highliy individualized and fact-specific nature of his narration, simply negates the purportedly lighthearted approach, and which makes me suspect that he does “mean it”, after all — maybe not all of it, but enough, and in essence he is thus simply venting. Nevertheless I will probably, at some point, give at least one of his longer books a try, too, in order to see whether the longer books have more to offer than even more tales of a bookseller’s woe. But I doubt that it will be anytime soon.
Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
Sigh. Well, I have to admit that it’s hard to translate a 16th century play’s spiky, waspish female main character, who at the end of the play seems to make a complete about-face and to submit to a man whom she professes not even to have married for love, into a modern context — and while chick lit and romance aren’t exactly my go-to genres, I suppose modern chick lit does provide one of the more proximate settings where this sort of thing might still be seen even in our day and age. But, seriously, Ms. Tyler? Couldn’t you of all writers have come up with something better? Don’t get me wrong, I was entertained (at least up to a point), which is just about the only reason why I’m not outright trashing this book, but good grief. “The Professor’s Ugly Duckling Daughter and the Awkward, Lumbering Bear Cub from the Wild, Wild East”? Really??
Edward Robert Hughes (1851–1914): Katherina contemplates her empty plate in The Taming of the Shrew (1898) (image source)
This book’s Kate is at best Shakespeare’s Katherina Minola “light”, Pyotr is a candle maker’s shop of lights short of being able to hold anything even faintly illuminating to Petruchio’s merest glimmer, and the book’s tone is so soggy-sappy-happy-go-lucky that at times I felt my toenails curling. The whole point about Shakespeare’s Katherina is that you very much do not want to be her friend, because she doesn’t want to be yours in the first pace; she despises people and, even more so, a society that denies her any role other than the one at home, and it is (or so she believes for the longest time) only as her father’s housekeeper that she has any sort of standing and respect in her own right at all, and she is willing to defend that position with all she has, never mind that it means her younger sister won’t be able to marry (either). This book’s Kate, though? What a sorry creature. Right at the start we learn that her big problem (and the only reason why she comes across as a curmudgeon at all) is a lack of self-esteem and the belief that she isn’t attractive enough — not only, but also, not least physically — to attract any man’s attention, particularly not the attention of the man she is secretly in love with. (Unsurprisingly, she happens to be wrong about this, but let that be.)
Shakespeare’s Petruchio, for his part, is unabashedly in it for the money, and for the money only — he doesn’t even try to “woo” Katherina; their every exchange is a pitched battle from start to finish, and he realizes from the very first moment that his chances of a happy marriage with Katherina are somewhere beyond minus zero Kelvin. (Well, OK, Kelvin had yet to come around, but you get my drift.) Also, he isn’t really a boar; he just adopts that pose as part of his bid to break Katherina’s resistance. Pyotr, on the other hand … well, in the first place the self-serving motive in Vinegar Girl is not so much his but that of Kate’s father, who is willing to (effectively) prostitute his own daughter so he doesn’t lose his uncouth but brilliant research assistant; even if presumably Pyotr himself doesn’t exactly object to staying in the U.S. — but although we don’t ever learn a whole lot about Pyotr’s motivation, he does make more than one clumsy attempt to actually woo Kate.
And that ending??? I mean, we all know that Shakespeare’s play ends with a wedding, but seriously, how much more HEA, rosy-red, “Reader, I married him” can you get? (My apologies to Ms. Brontë.) I’d love to say more, but I don’t want to spoil this book more than absolutely necessary for anybody still contemplating to read it. Long story short, I enjoyed the only other installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (a modernized take on The Tempest) — but when it comes to The Taming of the Shrew, give me the original every time … or if it has to be a modernized adaptation, please make it Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate!
Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride
Double sigh. After the disappointment of Anne Tyler’s take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew I was in serious need of a pick-me-up, and after having enjoyed two other works of this sort by Margaret Atwood — as I said, I really liked Hag-Seed, Atwood’s own entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare canon, and I absolutely loved The Penelopiad, especially in the incarnation of Laural Merlington’s simply brilliant narration, or rather, tour de force performance — you’d think I couldn’t possibly go wrong with this one, right? Right?? WRONG.
Oh man. The story, particularly as reconceived by Atwood, has so much potential. Three women facing up to the “robber bride” who has ruined all three of their lives and stolen their men into the bargain? Pyrotechnics! Cat fights! Stiletto heels! Steel chains! Leather and lace! Lights! Camera! Action!
Well, umm … actually, no.
More like, three extended treatises on all the reasons why there should be the mother of all bangs, followed by … not exactly a whisper; there actually is a bang of sorts, but it’s all over (and without much shouting, too) in the blink of an eye, and then we get sort of three afterwords contemplating on why this might all be a good thing (at least, arguably so, though we’re not really sure about that, either, are we?).
In other words, in the place where my expectations for this book were living, fully 4/5 of the book are exposition — the lengthy (and I do mean LENGTHY) life stories of the “robber bride” (Zenia)’s three perceived victims; plus a brief encounter between the bad girl and each the three good girls that doesn’t resolve anything (at best, it seems to set up some sort of resolution or final conflict or whatever, which however never actually occurs); prefaced by a visual but dialogue-less first encounter between Zenia and the three other ladies along the lines of “oh my God, she’s back … NOW WHAT??”, and followed by a “resolution” (of sorts) occurring off stage, while Zenia’s three victims are still running around on stage like headless chickens trying to get their stuff together. Then they all go their more-or-less separate ways and each of them thinks another bit about life in general and in particular. (Oh, and in case you’re wondering why the “robber bride” herself did what she did in the first place … I’m still wondering about that, too. She is the one woman in the story into whose head we never get to peak at all. Or, well, only indirectly by way of what she chooses to tell the others, some 99.9 – 100% of which however are lies.)
Obviously, my response to the book is, in large parts, due to the fact that I was expecting something that Atwood didn’t want to write, and what she did write — an in-depth examination of three women’s lives in the second half of the 20th century (an academic, an esoterically-minded housewife / part-time holistic store employee, and a business woman) was neither what I was expecting nor what I wanted to read at the time. And as always, Atwood’s language and imagery is simply exquisite. But I do think she wasted an enormous opportunity here in not actually fleshing out the conflict any more in the final part of the book — and as for the three women’s lives as such … sorry, Ms. Atwood, by your standards that stuff is (with the sole exception of Tony, the academic) largely downright sub-par and, at least for the time of this book’s publication (1993), badly cliché-ridden — in fact, the sort of women’s fates that everybody and their sister (and their mother, brother, and second cousin, too) had already written several times over at the time. I’ve read enough books by you to know that you can do MUCH, much better (and fortunately, you did again thereafter). So … NEXT!!
Philip Gooden: The Salisbury Manuscript
After the double disappointment of Anne Tyler’s Vinager Girl and (especially / even more so) Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, I felt in need of crawling into some warm, cozy and comforting place and curling up there, and in book terms that usually means taking recourse to a mystery — in this instance, the first book in Philip Gooden’s late-Victorian Tom and Helen Ansell series.
Gooden first came to my attention as a member of the Medieval Murderers group of writers; although his contributions to the round robins published by that group of writers usually feature his first series protagonist, Nick Revill, a member of Shakespeare’s and the Burbage brothers’ “King’s Men.” Tom Ansell, by contrast, is a young, late 19th century lawyer at the very beginning of his career with a London firm (or chambers); in this first installment of the series he is sent to Salisbury to take possession of a manuscript that one of his firm’s clients wants to see kept under lock and key for the rest of his life (and possibly beyond). Predictably — this is a mystery, remember? — Tom’s mission almost gets derailed by murder, and when he himself is mixed up in the nefarious goings-on with more and more insalubrious effects, his fiancée Helen — a would-be “lady author of sensational fiction” — joins him at the invitation of a connection of her own, whom Tom has met in the interim, too, and eventually helps solve the case.
I like Tom and (especially) Helen a lot, and I particularly also like the way in which Gooden sets up the book’s atmosphere; initially resisting the obvious “cathedral town” play and going for a darker, more primordial opening instead, even eschewing any hints about the time period during which the opening is set, which enhances the sinister effect even further. (The cathedral, in turn — as well as its close, where the first victim lives — will of course feature later on in the book … you can’t, after all, set a book in Salisbury and then pretend that Hardy‘s moonlight-bathed structure isn’t there; bells, tower, statues, “prophet, king, queen, cardinal in state” and the rest of it.)
There is a bit too much reliance on chance here for my liking — particularly in the mystery’s ultimate resolution — but I’m glad I finally gave this series a try, and I’ll happily continue reading it. Like the Medieval Murderers’ round robins, the books by the group’s individual authors are definitely, at least in their vast majority, proving solid winners for me, too … which is a good thing, because historical fiction is something that I am picky about, so it’s a relief to know that with this particular group, both collectively and individually, I’m more or less guaranteed to be in good hands; or at the very, very least, in reliably enjoyable hands.
Salisbury: Cathedral, Cathedral Close Gate, and Cathedral Close
The Medieval Murderers: Sword of Shame
Following on from my successful foray into Philip Gooden’s — relatively — new series, I decided to conclude the month of March with a revisit of one of the Medieval Murderers‘ round robins; the second book from the series, Sword of Shame. In its entirety, this book is fairly average for the series — well-researched throughout, with a balance of (a few) weaker and (mostly) stronger individual chapters; however, the one passage that I particularly love, and which stands out to me upon every reread as much as it impressed me when I read this book for the first time, years ago, is its opening, written by Michael Jecks, where we learn — slowly, deliberately, step by step, from the perspective of the blacksmith whose artistry creates the weapon — how the titular sword came into being first of all.
Jecks then goes on to narrate how this magnificent creation acquired its reputation of being a “sword of shame”, and I have to hand it to him, nobody writes medieval armed skirmish like Michael Jecks. Well, and Bernard Cornwell perhaps, but Cornwell’s focus is on blood and gore first; the more, the better, and everything else, including the way those involved actually experience the fight, a distant second — Jecks’s focus is always, always on the humans involved first and foremost and on the fact that, whatever the overall military outcome of the battle, skirmish or other fight, on an individual level there is always suffering and loss.
Of the subsequent chapters, the one that I consistently enjoy the most in this book is Ian Morson’s introduction of Nick Zuliani, Venetian jack-of-all-(dishonest)-trades: I don’t necessarily like all of Zuliani’s subsequent adventures, but this first one, which involves an insalubrious mix of murder and 13th century election rigging in La Serenissima, is a spirited hoot and a half (and also has a very memorable opening in turn). And I also like how Michael Jecks, in his “real” own chapter following on Morson’s,* indirectly uses Zuliani’s character to deftly add to the sword’s by-then already considerably sullied reputation, while at the same time juxtaposing rational analysis and superstition in his characters’ discussion of the sword’s real and alleged powers.
* In each of the Medieval Murderers round robins, the opening chapter introducing the object (or theme) that we are following through the centuries over the course of that book is written by a different author, as is the concluding chapter, which brings the object in question into our own age. In between, each contributor to the books gets to write one episode involving the object being traced and its fate (or misdeeds) in the world and with regard to the protagonists of that particular author’s “regular” historical mysteries, or in the context of a recurring setting which the author in question has chosen to explore specifically in in the context of the Medieval Murderers round robins. These individual episodes are “technically” self-contained in terms of plot and world-building; they do, however, contain occasional references to the same book’s respective previous episodes, as well as, of course, in their entirety forming the cohesive whole that makes up the eponymous object’s life cycle over the course of the entire book.