Monday, April 30, 2012

still more Trollope, Robinson, etc.

I am cranky these days. Very, very cranky.

I finished my re-read of The Prime Minister, the fifth book in Trollope's Palliser series, and it's very depressing. The political machinations which destroy good people are upsetting, and the anti-Semitism is too. (At first it seems that Trollope is only writing an anti-Semitic character, but he proceeds to lavish every anti-Semitic stereotype on his villain, and it's quite unpleasant.) I finished it feeling a little beaten down.

Then I read Peter Robinson's Friend of the Devil. Robinson writes solid police procedurals set in Yorkshire, and I usually consider his books a pretty perfect weekend-afternoon read. They're well-written, realistically gritty without being too disturbing, and I like his main characters. But I've noticed in the last few that he is beginning to get fairly abusive toward his female characters, and this one went over-the-top with it. This book failed for me as a diversion about twenty pages in, when a recurring female character wakes up after a black-out-drunk night with a stranger, and at no point does she a) acknowledge that she probably wasn't capable of consent or b) wonder whether or not they used a condom. And this is a character who, several books ago, got pregnant as a result of a rape. Seriously, Robinson? The most pressing concern of a woman with that sexual history is going to be that this man is younger than she is? Not likely. Later Robinson has the man publicly humiliate her about the age difference. There is no reason for this subplot at all, and he devotes thirty percent of the book to it, apparently just to shame his character. It's especially troubling because he would never shame his main male character like this.

Like I said, I'm cranky. Food issues are raising their many hydra-heads, as they always do sooner or later. I don't feel up to the vulnerability of writing in depth about body-hatred and my history of disordered eating in this space just yet. The short version is that through stress and exhaustion I lost twelve pounds (almost ten percent of my total weight) in six months last year, and have gained seven of them back, and I feel huge and bloated and lacking in self-control. Which is insane, and at least I'm aware it's insane and I have continued to eat normally. That's a lot more than I would have been capable of ten years ago.

I know things will be all right. That this is just a dark night of the soul, although I have to say frankly that my reaction to those at this point is, "Oh, come on, another one?"

For tonight's distraction, I have the next disc in the 1974 miniseries "The Pallisers",  which I am watching as a companion to re-reading the books. It is both engrossing and so, so hilarious. Three interior sets serve for twenty-five different houses; every actor is at least twenty years older than his/her character (there is a glorious moment when someone describes a man as "young" and amends it to "youngish", which I'm convinced was an ad-lib based on the actor's age; and we have women in their late 30s mincing around playing 18); and it took me five minutes to realize the matte painting in one scene was supposed to be an actual, physical Switzerland, at which point I hooted out loud. Everyone has been instructed to speak in affected nasal accents and the same six people are playing the extras in every scene. I love it.

Friday, April 27, 2012

religion, nature, and the world of human interaction

Finished Phineas Redux, which was not at all as dire as I remembered. I had forgotten there is a murder trial!

Then I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. I approached it with some trepidation: Holy the Firm affected me profoundly, but it is only eighty pages long and I remember being aware that more than eighty pages would have begun to tax my patience. And, indeed, this turned out to be the case. Dillard is highly invested in showing how violent nature is, so we get tale after tale of creatures - insects, mostly, and I am at my girliest when confronted with disgusting insects - spawning and swarming and killing in horrible ways. Ironically (given the two authors' stances on evolution; more on that below), it made me want to read Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation again, because although that often deals with matters not for the squeamish, it's never anything but fascinating. Dillard is just trying to shock her readers, as she says openly.

My copy was a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, so there is an afterword by Dillard saying that she is a little embarrassed by the book and is well aware that, at twenty-seven, she never thought a sentence done until it was completely overdone. This self-awareness made me a bit more forgiving of the language which I had found overwrought, although the tone of the afterword is too pretentious to be endearing, and she adds a deeply snotty paragraph saying that "someone" decided that her book should be school reading, but that it's far too difficult for teenagers and this decision is the only reason few adults read it. I probably would have loved this book when I was a teenager, particularly if I'd come across it during my religious-crisis phase.

And speaking of religious crises... there's nothing wrong with God in a believer's writing, but in Pilgrim Dillard is constantly asking, baffled, "Why would the creator make a creature this way?", when, well, there are obvious and simple reasons why evolution would make it that way. Her refusal to acknowledge evolution when discussing behaviors in nature is her right, but it makes her protests that she really does want to know WHY either wilfully exasperating or obnoxiously grandiose: she moons about moaning that There Is No Answer to things which absolutely have a biological explanation that she isn't willing to accept, so all the questioning comes across as the petulant demand that a burning bush appear to her and explain God's thought process on everything from leviathan-hooking on down.   

Your feelings about this may vary depending on your relationship to faith, of course, but I have no patience at all for those who think that knowledge, scientific or otherwise, is antithetical to wonder. In my experience it adds immensely to wonder, and I have never fallen in love or maintained a lasting friendship with anyone who doesn't light up when learning something fascinating. Someone sitting by a creek saying, "My god is a terrible god because he has created swarms, and humans will never fathom why," is, in my opinion, expressing a desire not to learn. You can believe in a god, and even think that your god is a terrible god because it is so difficult to survive in this world that species had to develop swarming behaviors for their genetic propagation to be possible. You don't have to think, "I will never understand this and the wonder is that I will never understand." I mean, you're free to, but your book will be boring.

God is in Holy the Firm, as you might imagine, but it's all pared down. That book is primarily about the beauty and the language, and not about how God owes Annie Dillard a personal apology for the giant water bug. The reason I read Holy the Firm was because Jon Krakauer used the following quote as a chapter header in Into the Wild:

We sleep to time's hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it's time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it's time to break our necks for home.

There are no events but thoughts and the heart's hard turning, the heart's slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.

That? That I can get behind.


I traveled a bit this week, just down to Pennsylvania. It did mean kenneling the dogs, which I found traumatic because I am a crazy dog lady. Darcy, who has abandonment issues (understandably, given that he was abandoned by his previous owners), did not want me to leave. Bingley, who is well aware that the kennel means playing with lots and lots of other dogs, felt I couldn't leave fast enough.

While down there I went to a Scythian show; they are a ridiculously talented band whose performances are pretty much the beginning and end of my interest in live music (in theory I frequently desire the amazing energy and good-will which can be generated by a crowd of people loving a live performance; in practice I'm a sober anxious early-to-bed type and one drunk dude can ruin an entire environment for me). I went alone, since the friend with whom I'd planned to go was sick.

Methods of handling stranger-interactions vary by region. In New England everyone carefully ignores each other. In the Midwest they will ask you your life story (Claudio and I were once trapped by a Madison salesclerk who was apparently not going to hand over our purchases until she had learned enough about us to write our biographies; Claudio finally said, "We're from Boston; your friendliness is scaring us"). In New Mexico, my place of origin, people will discuss the situation / environment, but never each other. If you're in a queue or a waiting room, it is completely acceptable to turn to the person next to you and talk about the fact of the queue or the waiting room. Not in a huffy, impatient, why-are-they-so-incompetent way (which I hate), but in a cheerfully rueful, we're-in-this-together way. But you do not exchange any personal information, ever.

So I can do the conversation with strangers, to a degree. I can walk up to a group of two or three people and ask where they're from, how long they've been following the band, etc. And all the fans I talked to were friendly and charming. But I was thrown every time when, after about twenty minutes of conversation, the person I was talking to said, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."

Right, I thought. It is traditional to exchange names. But it does not come naturally to me to offer my name up when first meeting someone. I feel as if it is not infringing on anyone to discuss the situation in which we have found ourselves, but the minute I hand over my name, I am expecting them to acknowledge me on a different level: not just as a fellow passenger for a period of time, but as [Beatrice], who exists outside of this context. I am sure that no one asking my name is getting this metaphysical about it; they just want to know how to refer to me during our time together. But, like most socially anxious people, I have a terror of pushing myself in where I am not wanted, and so always start out by trying to be useful, in the sense of providing amusing commentary or being helpful (I started a conversation with one girl by offering to help her with her club wristband). There's nothing wrong with that, but I should probably stop being surprised when someone who finds me interesting enough to have been talking to me for twenty minutes wants to know my name.

Anyway. The show was fantastic and everyone I talked to, band members and fans alike, was so sweet that I am still feeling a distinct sensation that People Are Good At Heart. Going places by myself and feeling welcome is crucial to me at this period of my life, so I value this experience a lot.

That doesn't mean I didn't get up at four o'clock yesterday morning and break my neck for home, because I did. The dogs and I had a joyous reunion, and the lady in the cat food aisle who gave the stink-eye to my kneeling down on the floor to hug them and saying aloud, "I missed you too!" can bite me. Angels unawares are good, and entertainment by them reassuring in a cold world; two known and furry angels are the reason I still believe in love.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

here be dragons

(Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my most rambling blog post yet. Enjoy.)

In many (possibly most) of the books I read when I was small, the heroines were perfect. Beautiful, brave, self-confident. If they had a flaw, it was something like being too sassy, too outgoing, too inclined to rush ahead. Elizabeth Bennett, for example.

When I read Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, it blew my mind. Not necessarily because I felt that I'd been shown a different type of heroine - Aerin may go off and fight dragons, but I'd already read Lloyd Alexander's books involving women who do battle, knew about Eowyn, and in my own mind had re-written Jim Hawkins as a girl long ago. Plus if you have an ageless wizard and a prince competing for your heroine's sexual favors, then I, the plainest child west of the Mississippi, am not going to fully identify with her. What blew my mind was Maur.  

If you don't know the story: Princess Aerin kills Maur, the "last of the great dragons", and while she is recovering from the battle someone brings Maur's skull back and mounts it in the great hall of the castle. When she enters the hall upon her recovery, the skull talks to her. It taunts her, in some of the creepiest passages I've ever read, calling her "witchwoman's daughter" and pointing out that everyone fears her now, because what girl could have defeated a dragon if she did not have some terrifying power? There's a definite sense that the skull is telling her she has more in common with the dragons she fights than with the people around her. At the end of the book, Aerin rejects the enormously powerful "bloodstone" from Maur's body, marries the prince, and is accepted by her people.

And I, eleven years old, was like, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, LADY?

Previous events in my life had anticipated this reaction. I am told that as a very wee one I was taken to see "Sleeping Beauty", and when Maleficent turned into the dragon my older brother and the other little boy there flung themselves into their mothers' laps in terror; my mother looked over to see if I was scared, and I was bouncing in my seat with pure delight. (I still love that scene, and am still outraged that we're expected to believe the comic-relief bumbling fairies have the magic necessary to defeat a GIANT BAD-ASS DRAGON. Please.) 

In The Hero and the Crown, the choice for Aerin is supposed to be between the two men (which was also a no-brainer for me, given that one is pale and humorless and the other taught her how to use a sword); listening to Maur and accepting herself as a "witchwoman's daughter" is not an option. Aerin, being the heroine, can do everything - defeat the dragon, get the guy, blossom from gangly awkwardness into beauty - but she can't be allowed to have power if it makes people dislike her. That would be imperfect.

My bĂȘte noire, from the earliest I can remember, has been imperfection. I know I'm not alone in this; I ended up at a tiny liberal arts college, after all, where I'm sure most of my classmates beat themselves up for not toilet-training earlier than they did. In second grade, writing a little story for class, I remember blanking on how to spell a simple word and completely panicking as a result. Total, frozen, maybe I should ask to use the bathroom and crawl out the window and join the circus because after turning in a story with a possible misspelling I CAN NEVER RETURN TO THIS CLASSROOM panic, and it was only the conviction that I would also disappoint the authority figures at the circus which had me returning to school the next day.

Heroines who could do everything should have been inspirational, but they discouraged me to the point of exhaustion. The ones who could fight could never just fight: they were also beautiful, brave, desired. Robin McKinley can characterize her heroines as awkwardly gangly all she wants, but they're still gifted with magical powers and have men willing to die for them (and it's worth noting no one's ever awkwardly plump). Lloyd Alexander's freakishly brilliant Vesper Holly and the defiant, competent women in the Westmark series are also described as breathtakingly beautiful. Even Kate from The Perilous Gard, which remains one of my favorite books in the entire world, returns from her sojourn with the fairies having gained an improved figure - there's the obligatory scene in which all her old dresses are too loose around the waist and too tight around the chest - and everyone talks about how different she looks (I forgive that, though, because she saves the hero by being able to think on her feet and by making fun of pretentious rituals). To be worthy of love you have to be perfect.

I don't recall anyone insisting a dragon has to be perfect. An imperfect, comically hapless dragon could probably still set things on fire (and would doubtless impress the circus authority figures). The idea of living in a nice quiet cave and being able to set pushy people who wouldn't leave me alone on fire was really, really appealing to me when I was ten years old (who am I kidding? it was appealing the last time I hid from the cable salespeople).

(Required reading if you haven't already: Jane Yolen's fairy tale Dove Isabeau, in which a princess is turned into a dragon and then eats all the heroes who come to rescue her. I didn't discover it until later in life, but damn.)

I wasn't really an angry child with tendencies towards pyromania, despite how I may be coming across here. I just faced the dilemma of adoring fiction without being able to find anyone enough like myself in it (and I'm a white woman who has always been sure of her heterosexuality - I can't imagine the frustration and disconnect girls of other ethnicities or sexual preferences face in their reading). And instead of being able to just lose myself in the story, or temporarily imagine myself as that perfect girl, I compared myself to fictional characters and became more and more obsessed with my own imperfections as a result. I didn't feel that way when I was reading about Maur, when I was reading about Smaug*. I could never picture myself being able to waltz or sword-fight or learn six languages or marry a prince, but identifying with an inhuman character absolved me of all the normal human imperfections I couldn't forgive.

It's like a toddler pretending to be a dinosaur, I know. A very basic desire to be more powerful than you are, to be a big stompy thing that doesn't apologize for taking up space. The goal, of course, should be for a young girl to know that it's okay to be flawed and imperfect and human, and be powerful and unapologetic anyway. I am not quite there even now, but I think I'm getting closer to stripping away the scales.

Though I'm not going to stop wishing that any interaction beginning with, "Can I talk to you about Fios?" could end with plumes of nostril fire. FOOOOM.

*I still think Smaug got treated shabbily as hell, and anyone going to the upcoming movie with me should know that I will probably cry when he dies.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

more Trollope and disappointing meta-mysteries

Over the weekend I finished The Eustace Diamonds, which is just so fun. Very Wilkie Collins, really, albeit with Trollope's distinct style. And of course I was fascinated on a somewhat painful level by the competition between Lucy Morris, the quiet "good girl", and Lizzie Eustace, the exciting adventuress, for Frank Greystock. When Lizzie says to Frank, of Lucy, "Your marriage with that little wizened thing... that prim morsel of feminine propriety who has been clever enough to make you believe that her morality would suffice to make you happy," I said out loud, "Damn, if the Mistress could write like Trollope, that is exactly what she would have said of me." I completely lack "feminine propriety", given my penchant for toilet humor and inability to eat without staining my clothes, but I can be the primmest of prim morsels. Lucy is frighteningly like me, and Lizzie frighteningly like the Mistress (what I know of her), and Frank's belief that he can have the best of both worlds and both women is extremely close to home. Lucy "wins" at the end, but Frank at that point is not a prize worth winning, and her happiness with him is where she and I go our different ways. This little wizened thing is taking her morality and will make someone else happy with it, thank you very much.

Then, after a dreadful day, I wanted something totally mindless and so read Heat Wave, by Richard Castle. I feel a goof just stating that, because Richard Castle doesn't exist. The idea behind this is that in the television show "Castle", Richard Castle is a best-selling mystery author who writes about a police detective named Nikki Heat. So they (the show creators) decided to actually bring out these books. I read trashy mysteries cheerfully, and this is so meta that I was intrigued. (The levels of meta in the afterword, in which the non-existent "Richard Castle" thanks the actors on the show, hurt my brain a little.)

When one of your characters, whether in a book or on television, is a writer, dealing with that writer's writing is always dicey. If you've created a best-selling or universally-acclaimed author, the pressure is huge if you are actually going to quote their writing. (Louise Penny deals well with this by getting permission to use previously-existing poetry, including that of Margaret Atwood, for her poet Ruth Zardo.) A.S. Byatt, of course, does the impossible in Possession and creates two Victorian writers, one of whom wrote in about sixteen different styles, but Byatt is not really like other humans. Most writers, in my experience, struggle when creating writer-characters' writings.

Which is a lengthy preface to the brief statement that I really would have thought they could have gotten someone with a little bit of talent to write Heat Wave. Surely there are more talented writers than this out there, willing to ghostwrite cheesy mysteries? I would do it in a heartbeat (I'm sure I was next on their shortlist). Heat Wave is pretty terrible, though obviously written by a New Yorker - the sense of the city is the only solid thing about it - and it irritated me because the character of Richard Castle is not written (or played; oh, Nathan Fillion) as someone who would write something nearly this crappy. And we're talking about a show which features actual mystery authors playing themselves as Castle's poker buddies (adorable, though the idea of Dennis Lehane living in New York: I scoff); surely someone involved had the literary connections to do better by this concept? Irritating. I could have really used a good trashy mystery yesterday, and got this instead.

No, "good trashy" isn't an oxymoron. There are bad trashy mysteries, and good ones. Same for romance novels. Good trash absorbs your attention and doesn't insult you. To an extent good trash is self-aware; I don't think Faye Kellerman believes she's writing to win the Nobel prize, and she holds tight to the formulas that she knows work. And when her annual book comes out, I spend a comfortable afternoon with it. Nothing wrong with that. I don't learn anything, but I don't get angry either.

Next up: I gather my sherpas (i.e., the dogs) and head up Mt. Phineas Redux. Perhaps I will find the journey much easier going than when I was a teenager. Or perhaps I will resort to cannibalism. Always a danger.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trollope and dim-witted witches

Finished Phineas Finn. The political stuff got a little more interesting toward the end, but I still glazed occasionally.

Then I read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe. I wanted to like it, even though I have friends who found it very disappointing. I mean: witchcraft! Salem! Hunting through libraries for an old book! It should work! It doesn't.

(There are spoilers all over the place ahead, because I don't recommend you read the book.)

A large part of the problem is our heroine. When we are introduced to her, we are told that she just presented the most brilliant Ph.D. defense in Harvard's history, but what we are shown for the rest of the book is someone really, really slow on the uptake. The most egregious example is when she, hunting for the lost "physick book", finds the journal of Deliverance Dane's daughter, and discovers an entry that reads, "Mother asked about her almanack. Angry to hear I gave it to Social Lib."

"To the Social Library!" says the reader.

Says our heroine: "What is it about this entry that feels important? Why would it? What could a mention of an 'almanack' possibly have to do with my quest for a book?" (I'm not exaggerating at all. That is exactly what we are told the character is thinking.) Her mental gears then grind for forty pages before she puts two and two together, and when she does it's presented as her nascent witch powers providing intuition, not as an ability to grasp synonyms for the word "book". The unforgivable offense here is that Howe thinks her readers are no smarter. It's like Dan Brown assuming that his readers won't know Leonardo da Vinci wrote in mirror image, and so he can have a Leonardo da Vinci expert not know that. "I'm sure my readers won't know that an 'almanack' could refer to a book, so I don't have to have my doctoral candidate in American history know that!" Seriously, Howe? What do you think we think an almanac IS? A wall calendar? A raincoat? What?  

You are an author. I am a reader. I am trusting you with my time and attention. What I ask in return is that you trust me to be at least as intelligent as you are. Why would you want to write for me if you don't think I am?

Our heroine's evil advisor (that isn't even really a spoiler, unless you are a Harvard doctoral candidate, because apparently they are a slow breed) is after her to find the book so he can take it from her, and at no point did I understand why he thought this would be faster than finding it himself. Her "hunt" consists of rambling around Salem with her love interest most of the time, and clues have to literally fall out of bookcases into her magical destined hands for her to find them.

The book is set in two time periods: the late 1600's and 1991. The period pieces are okay except for when any character opens his or her mouth, because Howe decided to write the dialogue in heavy Ye Olde Dialect and with a phonetically-indicated colonial Boston accent. It's unreadable. The modern setting appears to have chosen in order to eliminate computers from the search. I don't think this was necessary; one of my friends is a historian, and she has spent several of the last few years in archives with original sources. I do not think there was much googling involved. The other problem is that our heroine and her love interest are supposed to be attractive sexy young people, and I can tell you with all the authority of someone who was a fourteen-year-old girl in 1991 that no one in the world was attractive that year (Eddie Vedder came close, but you could just tell he smelled awful). When we're told that the love interest looks like he should be in a grunge band, I gagged a little bit.

Also, the end? The blocking? What is happening? First our heroine is tearing up herbs with both hands (including a mandrake root, which I don't think tears easily), but then with no transition she's holding the book to her chest, and then suddenly it's a "manuscript" of only a few pages instead, and then she throws it on the fire, but at the very end she claims the book is fine and hidden in the library...? What?

So. Not impressed.

Launched myself cheerfully back on the good ship Trollope, with The Eustace Diamonds, which I believe was my favorite of the series when I was a teenager. Lizzie Eustace is just vile, but fascinating, in a way Becky Sharp never was for me. It's such fun.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

notes on living alone

1. Talking to yourself and talking to your dogs are two completely different things. I will defend this belief to the death. Mind, I'm not ashamed of talking to myself, but that is something I do at work, when tussling with data.

2. You never need to ask the question, "Are you hungry?" to justify your own hunger. Randomly munchy at eight p.m.? To the cheese drawer!


4. The bathroom door is never closed. If I use the bathroom when people are over, the dogs visibly freak out at the closed door, which makes it plain to my guests that my levels of barbarity have reached "Viking". This is also the only time I see how dirty it is in the corner behind the door, and realize that my guest saw exactly the same thing when s/he used the bathroom earlier.

5. Pajamas at seven p.m. I used to do this anyway, since I work out in the evenings, and then shower, and then it's totally pointless to put on clean clothes if you're just going to change into pajamas a couple hours later, but I would have to defend it. He often didn't get home until eight or later, and to see me already all frump-tacular could set off a nasty argument. Dude, it's Wednesday, I'm not going to be heading out again at nine o'clock. And it's real velour! Let yourself go!


7. Apparently my "spinster" aura is so strong now that, at any event I attend, chatty elderly ladies queue up to be my friend, no matter how deep into a book I put my face. Actually, random people have always talked to me in public; I seem to have the kind of shyness which displays as "I would love to listen to you!" But since he moved out there is clearly some kind of specific widow pheromone I am exuding. Or maybe it's just the dog hair.

8. Listening to Ani diFranco last night (I know; I could just end the sentence right there), when she said, "'I've heard all my own jokes / And they're just not funny any more," I said to the dogs, "Wow, my own jokes are getting funnier all the time." It's possible this is tragic. I don't care.

9. Always realizing just before guests arrive: oh my god, my bras are EVERYWHERE. Bra-hiding is what I am doing when I should be cleaning bathroom corners.

10. Oscar acceptance speeches: not just for the shower any more!

Sometimes I feel that I went from zero to Crazy Dog Lady in about two weeks. But I do work all day, in a very busy office, surrounded by and interacting with people. Also, let's face it, I was never starting at zero. I was always a goofy dork, and I've just stopped trying to hide it. I can't imagine living with someone again, but it's good to know that for me to even consider it, he'll have to be someone who's fine with me wandering around the house in velour yoga pants saying absurd things to the dogs and cracking myself up. That's not a bad standard to set.

Trollope and The Yard

Over the weekend I finished my re-read of Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope and read The Yard, by Alex Grecian.

The Yard was my Early Reviewers book from Librarything, and all the blurbs inevitably compared it to Caleb Carr's The Alienist, which is enough to make me request a book (although I always request at least five books I would be willing to read), but nothing is ever as good as The Alienist. I know not everyone is into the period-mystery-summer-bestseller thing, but I defy anyone to say that, in its genre, The Alienist is not absolutely perfectly done. (Don't read the sequel; it's terrible.)

The Yard is not perfectly done. It is set in 1889, in the early days of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad and just following the Ripper killings. A new serial killer is stalking the Murder Squad investigators. So far, so serviceable. But the scenes in Scotland Yard could have been set in 1989 - they read like any modern police procedural - and I got no sense of the investigation methods used in 1889. The Brilliant Eccentric Doctor Working For Free (which is poached shamelessly from Carr) makes a big deal over this new fingerprint thing, but after about fifteen pages devoted to that it's not used in solving the crime at all.

There are actually two sets of crimes occurring, and in both of them we are introduced to the murderer(s) very early on and get the story from said murderers' points of view throughout the book. Maybe some readers like this. I hate it; and if you're going to do it at all you need to be really, really good at pacing, because your only remaining avenue of suspense is whether the heroes catch the villain in time to prevent another murder. And it's also very hard to use this plot device without making your heroes look stupid: the reader who has more information than the hero in a mystery is likely to get irritated. I was irritated from page twenty on, when the Chapter in Italics shows up and introduces the murderer by name, but I imagine even a reader who doesn't mind that plot device would be rolling his/her eyes after the seventh time that our hero notes that they're looking for a person in [profession] whom the murder victims would have trusted, and the guy in that [profession] who works for the London police force doesn't occur to anyone. Oy.

But there is always Trollope to fall back on when... well, when just about anything happens. I rave about Dickens all the time, but Trollope is the sweetheart who loves me even in my glasses and pajamas. And the man could write female characters. Can You Forgive Her? tells the story of Alice Vavasor attempting to choose between two suitors, although there is also just buckets of political stuff going on. I don't like Alice, but I believe her; and I do like plenty of the other characters. I'm almost done with the second in the series, Phineas Finn, which is openly political and so at times mightily dry. Still I'm very much enjoying them, and loving seeing real women on a Victorian page.

What a terribly blah post. Well, I've not been very creative or witty lately. Sunday I in fact had one of my (thankfully few) Stereotypical Abandoned Wife Days, during which I sit on the couch in an ugly bathrobe and sob hysterically when I come across the last ten minutes of "Nanny McPhee" on television. (I am not ashamed of this; if the scullery maid getting to marry Colin Firth ever doesn't make me sob hysterically, I shall know that my soul has shriveled away.) Then I tried to watch the second half of "Great Expectations", but I hate the story and Pip so much that I ended up half-watching "300" and snarking to myself instead. (Michael Fassbender's forehead in that movie is an anti-smoking PSA all to itself. The man was twenty-nine and his skin looks like it could have been at Thermopylae. Cigarettes are bad, kids!)

Anyway. Days like that are inevitable, even in Australia, and as long as I have access to baths and dogs, I'll get by. It's always mildly hopeful around here, even when it doesn't come across that way.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dickens, cowboys, and camels

Well, it's been a little while, hasn't it? I apologize.

Since last posting, I finished up A Tale of Two Cities (and I cried at the end; I can't help it; a susceptibility to Dickens melodrama is in my genetic code), read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt; re-read Bleak House; and read Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King.

The Sisters Brothers was a Booker Prize finalist, and one of the blurbs described it as "if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor". That's not a bad description. DeWitt is more interested in story and characters than McCarthy is, and not nearly as interested in pointless violence. There's plenty of violence in The Sisters Brothers, but it propels the story. The eponymous brothers, who are contract killers, follow a target to San Francisco and up into the gold fields and have adventures along the way which I have to describe as slapstick, despite their often disturbing nature.

I couldn't help but think that deWitt was deeply influenced by "Deadwood". It's the same idea in a lot of ways: near-villains as protagonists and you can't help but like them; dialogue that no one would ever actually speak but that works in context; a fair amount of brutality. If you liked "Deadwood", I think you would like this book.

Bleak House was just wonderful, as always. Some scholars (Claire Tomalin among them) think that Esther Summerson is every bit as objectionable as every other Dickens heroine and that his attempt to write from the first-person perspective of a woman is incredibly offensive. I actually think that Esther is pretty well done, because Dickens has Ada Clare to be his standard heroine and can then do more interesting things with Esther, although her relationships with Ada and (to a lesser extent) Caddy Jellyby are the Victorian equivalent of a frat boy's fantasies about pillow fights in the girls' dorm (see: Esther, on what she thinks is her deathbed, having her maid spy on Ada in the garden and saying, "Tell me how beautiful she looks today"). But when Esther's not gushing about her "pet", as she calls Ada, her voice works for me. It makes sense that a girl raised by someone who tells her that she was her mother's shame and that it would have been better if she was never born would grow up to be like Esther, driven by duty and self-abnegation.

Yes, the ending is nasty. The way the men decide among themselves which of her two suitors Esther is going to marry, and override her previous choice without consulting her, enrages me every time. You could argue she's too wrapped up in a sense of what she owes to ever allow herself to be happy, but the man to whom she's engaged could, I don't know, TALK TO HER about it, instead of going behind her back and stage-managing a scene in which he hands her off to the other man without her even getting any dialogue. DICKENS. COME ON.

(But then, re-reading Nicholas Nickleby on the train yesterday, I came across a minor character named "Pugstyles", and all was forgiven. PUGSTYLES. I had to put my head down and snort.)

Then I picked up Skeletons on the Zahara, which is a non-fiction book about a merchant ship which wrecked off the African coast in 1815. The survivors are captured and enslaved by the Oulad Bou Sbaa, a Bedouin tribe. Eventually the majority of them are purchased by a man interested in ransoming them, and then they just have to make it to Swearah (location of the consulate) alive, which is easier said than done. This book was a solid desperation / starvation tale of the kind I enjoy, though there was no cannibalism. It bogged occasionally - King was not skilled enough at explaining the Bedouin's intertribal relationships and rivalries - but I liked it.

Now I am re-reading Can You Forgive Her?, by Trollope. I had planned to re-read the Palliser series this winter and didn't get around to it, so I'm picking them up now. I shall read new books in between. Possibly during, if Phineas Redux is as dire as I recall.