A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

Five Children and It (Nesbit)

Five Children and It - E. Nesbit

It would have been of little interest to me as a child, but this was published in 1902, which means it predates the superficially similar "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (parentless children having supernatural adventures in a country-house setting) by several decades. That association is the most likely to have occurred to me (had I been a literary critic of a child), along with the very recognizable pattern of Aladdin's lamp wishes, always having unexpected outcomes.


Though the story is told in quite a jocular tone, the wishes at times look like taking a really serious turn for the awful, though of course nothing horrible ever actually happens to this charmingly naive and well-characterized family of two girls and two boys (plus baby), each with his or her own strengths and fears. (Of course, there is tremendous gender stereotyping, but it's a 1902 book, after all). I vaguely remember being quite fond of this story as a child, but preferring its sequel, "The Phoenix and the Carpet", which I probably should make a point of re-reading (to discover why I preferred it). Re-reading Five Children and It half a century later, most of it was still full of harmless chuckles, the most difficult parts being the two episodes featuring gypsies and Red Indians respectively, since one is painfully aware of the harmful stereotypes being perpetrated through these fictional tropes. The blow is softened a little by the fact that the children routinely get the details of the stereotypes muddled up in daft ways (as indeed they do with the other major "romance setting" adventure, being in a besieged castle). Nesbit has great fun with this last, pointing out that the besieging army's accoutrements are drawn from at least seven or eight different centuries of history, as per the imagination of the illustrators' of historical and children's novels. (This is the kind of humorous passage that would have flown right over my head as a child, but would have amused an adult reading to a child). One gets the sense that she is also poking fun at the incompleteness and inaccuracy of the children's perceptions of gypsies and Red Indians, drawn as they would be merely from children's literature; in other words, we are not to take these manifestations seriously at all, any more than we take the Psammead's peculiar version of Stone Age archaeology seriously. Still, these days we cannot but be sensitive to racialized tropes.


I don't know how accurate Nesbit's depiction of children's behaviour in 1902 could be deemed to be (they seem pretty recognizable to me, though shockingly well-spoken), but she certainly has a feel for childhood logic and for the way children bravely supply the gaps in their information with anything they have overheard (however imperfectly) from the adult world. I wish I had had an illustrated edition of this to read, instead of the mere text in my Kindle. It would have taken me even further back into a happy place and time where wishes were possible, even though they might have a tendency to go badly wrong and need to be reversed at sunset.

A Man Lay Dead (Marsh)

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh

I've left myself in the interesting position of trying to review, at a distance of several weeks, two country house mysteries, both of them the first in the author's series. The one in question here is the first Roderick Alleyn mystery; the other, "The Crime at Black Dudley" by Margery Allingham, the first Campion mystery. Although the two books are remarkably similar - both feature daggers, a game in the dark, and a mysterious and threatening foreigner, for instance - what stands out for me is how dissimilar Campion and Alleyn already are.


This is the more remarkable in that they both, like their brother Wimsey, are clearly descended from the same progenitor, the Scarlet Pimpernel. They are all aristocrats in disguise, whose deep and serious purposes are concealed by silliness. It is already clear from these first novels that while Campion's silliness is to be a thick and heavy cover, to the point where most of his acquaintance question his stability, Alleyn's forays into bad jokes and slightly unprofessional behaviour arise from deep unease within his real character, which finds the business of crime repugnant, and the business of crime detection occasionally disturbing and upsetting. It is my impression, based on reading subsequent novels (many of them in the far distant past) that while Campion's silly-fool cover is maintained, with only the occasional glimpse behind the curtain, Alleyn's silliness is almost entirely dropped, especially when he takes on the new character of lover. This is appropriate, given that he is, from the first, present in his professional capacity as a policeman, unlike Wimsey and Campion, who are freelance amateurs.


In this book, despite a well-developed - in fact, rather over-dramatically developed - sub-plot involving Russian conspirators and a little bit of torture for Alleyn' sidekick, Nigel Bathgate, the murder of Bathgate's cousin, Charles Rankin, turns out to have the oldest motive of all. I'll say no more than that, except that Alleyn stages a good reveal, involving, of all things, sliding down a banister (no, he does not compromise his own dignity!)


Based on the evidence of covers, Ngaio Marsh's mysteries appear to have been recently re-released, which may explain not only why they're all readily available on my e-library, but also why this one was so heavily wait-listed.


I enjoyed this very much.


The Nursing Home Murder (Marsh)

The Nursing Home Murder - Ngaio Marsh

Since I was reading a biography of Ngaio Marsh, I decided to pick up a couple of her mysteries from the library to remind myself of their flavour. This one is only the third in the series, so Roderick Alleyn is still without a romantic partner, and still decidedly a smart-aleck.


The title of this work doesn't work particularly well in a contemporary North American context, because the meaning of the term "nursing home" is not the same. Here it means, essentially, a small private hospital. So one has to put aside the associations with vulnerable old people (especially vivid in the midst of this pandemic that is preying upon them) and realize instead that the murder victim is a man of power - the Home Secretary - with a multitude of enemies, personal and public, who might wish to see him dead. When he goes into that hospital with acute peritonitis, pretty much everyone around the operating table either has a fairly obvious motive (two members of a romantic triangle of which he is the third point, for instance; and a nurse who is a vocal member of the Communist ("Bolshie") political group he is actively attacking with legislation). In addition, he is dosed by his rather eccentric sister with a dubious cure, just before the operation. All of these suspects fairly successfully distract from the reasonable suspicion one might form, that a death due to an overdose of a secondary anaesthetic might just be attributed to the anaesthetist. The anaesthetist in the case seems at first to have no motive - unless you are paying close attention during Inspector Alleyn's interviews with all the characters.


One of the things I was delighted to rediscover is the wit in the narrative voice. Here, for instance, are Sir Derek's feelings towards his wife:


Always so perfectly groomed, so admirably gowned, so maddeningly remote. Their very embraces were masked in a chilly patina of good form. Occasionally he had the feeling that she rather disliked him, but as a rule he had no feeling about her at all. He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar exploration. There were no children.


"Polar exploration"!


Finally, I'll note that even in this murder set in an operating theatre, the other kind of theatre (Ngaio Marsh's other great passion) is brought in to the story. It is presented as a possibly incriminating device - rather like the play in Hamlet, someone describes a play they've just seen where the circumstances are a close mirror to the real life murder, and we all watch the reactions of various people (particularly the surgeon himself) with interest.


After I finished this one, I could barely wait to get to the other Marsh I had on hold with the library; what a delight to revisit an author I enjoyed so much when I was younger.

In the Skin of a Lion (Ondaatje)

In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje

"... Ondaatje stressed the importance of place and having a landscape in which to envision his work. 'I can’t begin a book with an idea, or it peters out after about two pages,' he said. 'Location is essential. Once I know when and where it’s happening, it creates a situation for a story. It’s almost like a plot, a landscape.'”


This quotation (it's from a 2012 feature story in the Chicago Maroon, student newspaper of the University of Chicago) helped me a great deal to formulate for myself how this novel by Ondaatje differs from most fiction I've read. One difference, certainly, is that the prose is more poetic than most, with unexpected metaphors teasing around your understanding of the plain sense of the narrative, distracting and at the same time delighting you with their oddness, and, if you can decode them, their rich appropriateness. An example found just by opening a page at random: "Patrick stares at the thin layer of moonlight on the wall. His body feels like the shadow of someone in chains."


In this context, it is neither plot progression - the point of view and timelines jump about a lot - nor character - the main characters are notably dynamic but not necessarily deeply examined - but the rock-solid sense of location that grounds you and encourages you to continue on with this story. It's been a couple of months since I finished it, and what stands out to me most clearly are vivid pictures of locations, in many cases locations in or near Toronto that I know of: the Bloor Viaduct Bridge, the water filtration plant that looks like a palace, and has deep underground pipes that go miles out into the lake. All of these have some added moment of action that fixes them in your mind: the nun falling off the partially constructed Bloor Viaduct Bridge, for instance. In this novel, Ondaatje also fixes his story very firmly in time, bringing in the real-life disappearance of Ambrose Small, as well as both the massive and visionary building projects and the violent labour unrest.


Through this, our main character Patrick charts his chequered career, at a certain point taking on the lion-skin, as it were, of a saboteur and rebel, in place of his lover Clara's previous and now deceased lover.


There's more Ondaatje in my future: the delights far outweigh the difficulties.

Many Rivers to Cross (Robinson)

Many Rivers to Cross - Peter   Robinson

In this novel, which continues the Zelda arc (the Eastern European woman first introduced in the last volume), Banks continues to grapple with both the evil that outsiders can do, and the evil aroused in white Britain when xenophobia gets a grip on them.


The main case is the murder of a 12- or 13-year-old boy from Syria, a refugee sent ahead of his family, who gets caught up in the world of drug distribution (the "county lines" - a new phrase for me). That trade, apparently, is being taken over by Albanians with a particularly ruthless line in executions for operatives or allies they deem to be unfaithful, unreliable or disposable. The boy is found stabbed in a garbage bin in one run-down Eastvale estate, but evidence quickly links him to another death, an overdose of an elderly man, in another. This second estate is about to be redeveloped by a greedy English entrepreneur who is hand-in-glove with said Albanians. Living physically as well as economically elevated above the estate, on a hill just above it, is a middle-class largely white district with an active neighbourhood watch, and a recent trauma in the form of the rape of a young woman in the park that joins (or separates) the two neighbourhoods.


Meanwhile, in what seems almost entirely a different book, "Zelda" (her real name is Nelia) is working out her destiny, mostly in London. Making a series of too-stupid-to-live decisions straight out of thriller movies, she pursues the two Croatian brothers responsible for abducting her into sex slavery. After the culmination of that search (I won't spoil it), she goes to Banks (her boyfriend is Annie Cabbot's father, but he's out of the country); there are some stirrings of romantic attraction, but nothing is acted upon, and she certainly doesn't confide everything to him about her actions in London. I'm presuming the resolution of this story will take up a large part of the next Banks novel.

There are a lot of nasty, violent, vicious people in this novel, and because so much of it is spent on the sub-plot I did find that I would have liked more of the cheery Eastvale police department banter as a counteractive.


No spoilers as to the eventual degree of guilt worked out and assigned to the various perpetrators in the two main plot lines. The primary plot is fully resolved. I still get a great deal of pleasure out of these novels, and am not finding them repetitive. Nor do I object, as some reviewers apparently do, to Banks' political thoughts about racism and Brexit - you can hardly avoid it, and I suppose I don't object because his thoughts (those of a "Guardian reader", as one of the neighbourhood watch spits) are, to me, fundamentally right and exactly what you'd hope the police would believe.


Just another step down the path with an old friend.

Fanshawe (Hawthorne)

Fanshawe - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Although this shortish novel is not bad, I can understand why Hawthorne wished to suppress it as unworthy juvenilia. It's much more laboured in construction, and much more reliant on stereotypes for characters, than his mature work. The nominal hero, Fanshawe, an over-studious type destined for an early grave, gets little or no attention for much of the book, and then roars into action (as it were) in the last two chapters, and the resultant love triangle - with a healthier but somewhat more dissipated suitor - is unusual in that our poor heroine is faced with not one but two lovers who nobly recuse themselves from the contest, albeit temporarily.


That said, Hawthorne's ability to tell a good story is already evident. His descriptions of the natural New England forest and the habitations therein in the late 18th century are already well-developed. It's already apparent, I note with amusement, that he is downright reluctant to write an outright villain; even in this early work, everybody has a backstory that gives some reason for their falling away from righteousness.


Nature and the landscape inform and drive parts of this story: the climax takes place at a secluded cave at the foot of a precipice, over which flows a waterfall. Hawthorne paints this scene very clearly for us, so that we understand the mechanics of the conclusion of his plot. I did not, however, detect very much of the other half of the beauty-and-terror Gothic equation, namely the terrifying, though there's a thunderstorm for Ellen's ill-advised departure with a strange man. Ellen herself is completely without character, other than conventional virtues and a certain lack of trust in her guardians.


Although the novel is described as being based upon Hawthorne's time as a student at Bowdoin College, there's little of that evident except in the opening scene-setting (quite comic in its description of the different kinds of students), and possibly in the description of the studious and henpecked president of that college (Ellen's guardian) who may have some attributes of a real person. I should add that Hawthorne's habit of writing in bits of local colour "as they are now" - i.e., in his time, not in his historical setting - is a bit obtrusive in this novel, particularly at the end of the penultimate chapter, where we are yanked out of the flow of the narrative to visit the grave of the villain, all illegible and overgrown.


Still, it would have been a shame if Hawthorne had in fact succeeded in completely destroying all copies of this early effort. Almost two centuries later (it was published in 1828), it passed a tedious day in a happy fashion for this reader.

Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard)

Allan Quatermain - H Haggard, Fred Williams Jr.

I knew what I was getting into when I opened the first page of this British colonial adventure-fantasy. Though I'm not quite sure whether I've read King Solomon's Mines, I know I read She when I was younger, so I'm familiar with the notion of brave English explorers - male of course - penetrating into darkest Africa to discover a lost race, preferably ruled by females who are light-skinned enough to avoid the inevitable cries of miscegenation when the said brave English explorers take over by some combination of martial force and marriage. Allan Quatermain, our narrator in this adventure, is such a man, although he casts himself as the older, unmarriageable sidekick to Sir Henry Curtis, unchallenged Hero of this book, and to the secondary principal, Captain John Good, who is as apparently fated - by genetics or literary convention - to be as unlucky in love as Sir Henry is inescapably lucky. So it's just as well, really, that there are two light-skinned sister-queens in the lost kingdom, one good one (Nyleptha) for Curtis to fall in love with, and one bad one (Sorais) to fall for Good while he is pining inappropriately after her sister. Part of their party, but standing apart in every possible way from the English, is Zulu chief Umslopogaas, who has a great attachment to his battle-axe and is immovably serene except when intensely engaged in battle.


The fantasy elements are well-handled, by and large, with intriguing architecture for the central royal complex (in Milosis, the capital of the realm of the Zu-Vendi) and a fun and well-described involuntary trip by underground river into the fantasy realm. The hunting scenes (Quatermain is a hunter by profession) are less enjoyable for this reader, as are the various battle scenes. In particular, the opening chapters set in the "real" Africa, where the opponents are not fantasy nobles and priests but the very real Maasai - and if Umslopogaas is the Noble Savage, the Maasai are depicted are the very opposite, ignoble and undifferentiated slaughterers destined for slaughter themselves because they have the effrontery to attack a Christian missionary's family.


The tone is generally fairly light and full of dialogue, and there are comic episodes, some of which work better than others for the modern reader. The stereotypical lily-livered Frenchman (a cook, of course) doesn't provide me with many guffaws, which is a shame since that's his sole purpose in the book.


Anyway, it's a well-told adventure story, and since I'm past the stage where my world-view will be warped by the sexism and imperialism in the narrative, I'm perfectly happy to treat it as a fantasy and enjoy it.

The Clock Strikes Thirteen (Wirt)

The Clock Strikes Thirteen - Mildred A. Wirt

This mystery novel for teen girls is by the same woman (Mildred Benson) who was the primary contributor to the multi-author Nancy Drew series for its first 25 titles or so. It's not hard to see; Penny Parker, the heroine of this and 16 other titles in her series, is very like Nancy in her intelligence, spunkiness, and rather unrealistic freedom of action. Penny is the daughter of a reliably supportive newspaper editor, and in the absence of law enforcement connections, the pursuit of a story on behalf of her Dad's paper becomes a somewhat plausible pretext for her investigations. Benson was in the newspaper business as well, and for me one of the most interesting passages in the book was where she described the actual workings necessary overnight in order to put out a special edition first thing in the morning.


This is a mystery without a murder; the clandestine gang who signal their meetings with an extra chime to the clock have mercenary motives. However, they're sufficiently brutish (and one has a nasty backstory with a hit-and-run resulting in the orphaning of a pathetic little girl), and you're glad, although not terribly surprised, when the masked leader of the gang is unmasked and held to account by a heroic little gang of journalists until the police arrive.


One of the things I noticed about Penny's story is the emphasis on the cars in her life (she has two!) This reminds me of another series, the explicitly named "automobile girls" by Laura Dent Crane, where ownership (or at least use) of a car is the key to a young woman's freedom to explore her world.

Wilkie Collins (Ackroyd)

Wilkie Collins - Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd's name on a title page is a sure recommendation for me. I've read others in his "brief lives" series, and enjoyed them all. What struck me about this one is that (as opposed to Chaucer or Shakespeare) there is a lot known about his 19th-century subject and (as opposed to Poe, who died at 40), Collins had a relatively long and very productive life to cram into 200 pages or so.


It didn't feel crammed, although there wasn't room for the kind of literary analysis that one would expect in a longer, academic biography. I think Ackroyd successfully identified the major themes and traits of Collins' best-known novels, and made connections between all of the writing and the life where that connection is evident. I got a clear picture both of Collins the author and Collins the man, and a reasonably good sense of the major relationships in his life (including those with his two concurrent mistresses!) The strong and lengthy friendship with Dickens got fair play here, but I imagine there is much more detail in Ackroyd's very decidedly not brief biography of Dickens which is sitting on my "to be read" shelf.


As I am reading through Collins in a rather haphazard way, this little book provides very useful context and I'm happy to have it on my shelf.

The Dead Alive (Collins)

The Dead Alive - Wilkie Collins

This novella by Collins was first published in 1874 in the collection "The Frozen Deep and other stories" under the title "John Jago's Ghost; or The Dead Alive". Based on a real early 19th-century case, it is set in the US, and the solution to the mysterious disappearance/murder of John Jago is fairly easily discerned from the title. The narrator-protagonist is a youngish lawyer, on a foreign trip to cure his nervous complaint (well, so much for that), and he encounters no supernatural occurrences or Gothic contrivances, other than a couple of moonlit gardens. Instead, there is a steady buildup of characterization for four or five main players, including the aforementioned John Jago, as well as one of Collins' trademark Young Women Who Know Their Own Mind (this one demonstrates it in American idioms, though not too annoyingly).


There's a disappearance, the arrest of two overwhelmingly obvious suspects, several stages of trial (interestingly, we're taken through the whole rarely-described sequence of magistrate - Grand Jury - formal trial), a couple of confessions with coercion in question, a verdict, a newspaper advertisement and a coincidental discovery, all overlaid with a rather unnecessary romantic sub-plot that leaves us a little unsure whether the young lady in question really knows her own mind or not, so quickly does she change the object of her affections. But then, it's not a full-length novel.


A quick and easy read, and it has been republished (2005) as an interesting early fictionalization of a wrongful conviction in the US, along with a lot of contextual legal information on the same - that is not the edition I read.


If you read Collins because he tells a good story, this item will suit you fine; if you read him for his Gothic/supernatural/sensational aspects, don't be fooled by the title - there's next to nothing in that vein.


Blind Love (Collins)

Blind Love - Wilkie Collins, Walter Besant, A. Forestier

Given his own socially unconventional attitudes (he had a well-documented disdain for the institution of marriage), I think it's unlikely that the plot of this novel - ostensibly a cautionary tale about choosing the rascal over the upright man for a husband - was anything more than a convenient trope for the aging and ailing Collins. Whether that was also the case for the fellow-novelist, Walter Besant, who finished the novel from Collins' notes after the latter's 1889 death, I do not know.


My principal problem with this novel is not the young lady, Iris, who gives her heart away to the roguish Sir Harry, despite the constant supporting presence of the much more suitable (and very much enamoured) Hugh Mountjoy. My problem is that, as a rogue, Sir Harry's a vacillating weakling. Of course, in order to make him defensible as a love object for his heroine, Collins had to put him far more to the centre of the moral sliding scale than either the scheming murderer Dr. Vimpany or the rather faceless and nameless Irish rebels who go around assassinating (a) English landowners in Ireland and (b) people they conceive to have betrayed and insulted their cause. Sir Harry moves from ideological to financial crime with barely a hitch, but is unable to carry through with any particular villainy, even his own proposed fraud on a life insurance company after he goes to all the trouble of faking his own death. And one of the best moments in the novel, because it's not at all conventional, is that where Collins shows Sir Harry sitting vacillating in the presence of a medical murder, neither assisting nor interfering, and making it quite clear in the process that while that murder was always a likelihood, it had not been openly discussed with his confederate.


The break between Collins' writing and the part written by Besant is at the end of Chapter 48 (so noted in my copy), and is very noticeable. Besant doesn't seem to have made any effort to mimic Collins' fairly declarative style, and instead one immediately notices the much more broken sentences and heavy use of dashes. However, there is no floundering in moving the plot to its preordained conclusion; I just wish Besant had made a little more of the dramatic death of Doctor Vimpany in the flooding Solway Firth, a climax of the action that I vaguely feel must have been done before in 19th-century literature, possibly by Sir Walter Scott, as it was bringing up memories of a similar scene.


This is Collins at the very tail-end of his powers, and the story is incompletely realized, but I still found some interest in the proceedings. I also quite liked the three main women characters: Iris, Fanny (a fallen woman rescued by Iris, who thereafter became somewhat manically devoted to her), and Mrs. Vimpany, who was also reformed by Iris, though rather suddenly. The women, interestingly enough, are all capable of more character development than the men.


This novel came up fairly early in my reading of Collins because the title starts with the letter "B" and my collection is alphabetical. If you are reading Collins according to a more sensible plan (merit of the novels, or even chronology), you can safely leave this one to the end, but there's no need to omit it.


Lives of the Saints (Ricci)

Lives of the Saints - Nino Ricci

Had this novel ended after 200 pages, I probably would have called it well-observed, low-key, a little distant and foreign to me. There is relatively little incident in it, though most of the main characters end up getting physically injured, through fist-fighting, snake-bite, geriatric falls or other happenstances of life in a somewhat rough-and-tumble, very small Italian town post WW II. It is told from the point of view of Vittorio, a young boy, but with a fairly adult understanding (though without any spoilerish references to future events). We are, however, left to glean for ourselves, from the plentiful evidence, that Vittorio's mother Cristina - effectively a single mother, since her husband has emigrated without her to America - has had an adulterous affair and is now pregnant. Much of the novel shows Cristina defiantly dealing with the fallout of this in her family and small community, where she does not conform to expected behaviour. Meanwhile, Vittorio also feels the backlash at school (it is a sympathetic schoolmistress who preserves him from the worst of the after-school bullying by holding him back to sweep the floor and listen to stories of the lives of the saints).


Cristina escapes into the big world - specifically an ocean liner taking her and Vittorio to Halifax, where she does not intend to re-join her husband. Here are a brand new set of characters and a brand new set of social mores (there's a fairly amusing byplay with the Captain's jealous wife). But the real world turns out to be too big and cruel for Cristina, and there is a catastrophic conclusion for her and her unborn child. I've left that vague for the sake of future readers, but I suppose even that deserves a spoiler tag.


For me, the first part of the novel was a pleasant read, but it was the conclusion, with its sudden, violent action, that gripped me and that now remains chiefly in my memory a few weeks after finishing the book.

Dear Committee Members (Schumacher)

Dear Committee Members - Julie Schumacher

Most of the charm of this short, funny book about academia is in the snarkiness and sheer inappropriateness of the letters of reference written by Professor Jason Fitger. These letters of reference form the entire contents of the novel, and it's something of a triumph of ingenuity over form that the novel actually has a bit of a plot, and, by the end, a bit of emotional resonance too.


We discover a fair bit about Fitger as he grumbles, insults and reminisces his way through letters that are only nominally about the students or faculty members he is (nominally) recommending for various jobs, positions or grants - in many cases, recommending them to one of several women with whom he has been romantically involved in the past. What's interesting is that by the end of the novel, we believe we know Fitger a bit better than he knows his self-deprecating self.


Mostly, however, this novel is an endless source of chuckles or occasional outright laughs, especially if you've spent any time in academia at all. Who among the beleaguered reference-writing faculty would not wish to actually be able to write a letter like this? (I'm quoting it in full just for fun):


December 16, 2009
Internship Coordinator
State Senator Pierce Balnearo's Office
The Halls of Power


Honorable Internship Coordinator:


This letter's purpose is to recommend to you - in the capacity of unpaid labor, presumably licking envelopes and knocking on doors - Malinda Heisman, a student in my Multicultural American Literature class. Malinda is an A student, a wide-eyed earnest individual who will undoubtedly benefit from a few months spent among the self-serving pontificates in the senator's office.


Malinda is intelligent; she is organized; she is well spoken. Given her aptitude for research (unlike most undergraduates, she has moved beyond Wikipedia), I am sure that she will soon learn that the senator, his leathern face permanently embossed with a gruesome rictus of feigned cheer, has consistently voted against funds for higher education and has cosponsored multiple narrow-minded backwater proposals that will make it ever more difficult for her to repay the roughly $38,000 in debt that the average graduate of our institution inherits - along with a lovely blue tassel - on the day of commencement.


Malinda's final essay in my class - here it is on my desk, among a cast of thousands - is a windy but assiduous reading of Jamaica Kincaid's "At The Bottom of the River." The essay demonstrates strong writing skills and rigorous thinking. Allow Malinda the privilege of laboring in your office for nothing (she'll probably continue to work nights as a barista in the coffee empire), and I am confident you will be making, though perhaps not in the ways you might have intended, a remarkable contribution to her education.


With all best wishes, I remain
Your devoted public servant,
Jay Fitger, Professor of the Lost Arts
Payne University


I do hope that excerpt will spur some other readers on to discover Julie Schumacher. There's a sequel, "The Shakespeare Requirement", on my tbr shelf, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

Home Work (Andrews)

Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years - Emma Walton Hamilton, Julie Andrews Edwards

"[T]he pressures were tremendous. Yet she never wavered. Her optimism, delicious humour and selfless nature were always on parade. It was if she'd been hired not just to act, sing and carry the entire film, but to keep everyone's spirits up as well. She did. She held us together and made us a team. Julie was quite transparent. There was no way she could conceal the simple truth that she cared profoundly for her work and for everyone else around her. I think that beneath my partly assumed sarcasm and indifference she saw that I cared too. As two people who barely came to know each other throughout those long months of filming, we had somehow bonded." (In Spite of Myself, p. 396).


So wrote Christopher Plummer about Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music".


In her own always-generous if always-measured way, Julie Andrews returns the compliment in this volume (p. 55):

"I didn't see much of Chris Plummer beyond the workday, as he spent most of his spare time at the Bristol. Word spread that he was becoming renowned for his late-night performances at the piano in the hotel bar. In his youth, he had trained to be a concert pianist, and he was very good indeed. He apparently spent his evenings at the bar getting quite smashed and playing Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky until the wee hours. That said, Chris was the glue that held us all together; the one who always kept us from going too deep into the saccharine side of the story. He was so disciplined in his acting, so knowledgeable, that he was appropriately imposing as the Captain. Yet he was very gentle, and constructive too. He'd make suggestions as to how we would play a certain scene..."


In that last sentence is reflected one of the pervading themes of this volume of Andrews' memoir: her relative insecurity as an actor (she took no acting lessons prior to making these blockbuster movies), which is the more striking in comparison to her complete confidence in her musical side.


Just as her singing features impeccable diction and razor-sharp intonation, Andrews' prose here is correct and well-crafted (and has gone through careful editing, obviously, by her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton). Though it's idiomatic and not over-formal, you will search in vain for exclamation marks or exaggerations in her prose. The net effect, especially if you are not reading carefully, is rather emotionless. It is only if you look carefully at exactly which well-chosen words she has actually chosen that you can read the emotion, barely beneath the surface. This is particularly true, of course, when she writes about her family - her divorce from her first husband, Tony Walton; and her long marriage to director Blake Edwards, and creation of a blended family (Emma, two of Edwards' children acquired through marriage, and two adopted orphans from Vietnam).


The detailed portion of the book, true to its title, is largely focused on Andrews' Hollywood films - the three huge musical hits (Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Victor/Victoria) as well as the somewhat lesser-known films, some hits and some misses (The Americanization of Emily, Hawaii, Star!, Thoroughly Modern Millie, S.O.B., 10 - and several others I've missed out, I'm sure). Since it's a chronological account, we also get stories about the Julie and Carol television specials, as well as her own TV series. In addition she chronicles the beginning of her side-hustle as a children's book writer. Since there's no mention of her late-life work (the Princess Diaries movies, for instance), I think it's possible that a volume 3 is in contemplation.


Oh yes, did that bond from "The Sound of Music" last? If you can believe the joint interview of Plummer and Andrews (2005) that I pulled up on youtube the other night, it most certainly did. The affection and respect between them didn't look at all acted to me.


If you're at all interested in Julie Andrews' work, or in Hollywood history, I heartily recommend this one.


The Alienist (Carr)

The Alienist - Caleb Carr

I borrowed this first-in-a-series from my e-library on an impulse, because it was heavily recommended on a book forum I follow. I enjoyed it, with reservations. A little to my surprise, it was published in 1994, but I suppose it's receiving a second burst of popularity because it was made into a 2018 TV series (which I have not seen).


Set in New York in 1896 (although introduced by a brief flash-forward to Theodore Roosevelt's funeral in 1919), this is the story of a serial murderer whose victims, juvenile transgender or male cross-dressing prostitutes, are particularly unmentionable in polite society. Roosevelt is New York City police commissioner (a fact about him I did not know), and is in the process of sweeping corruption out of the department, which is earning him and anyone associated with him a few enemies. He is a secondary but important character in this narrative, and the fact that there is no historical account of his having been involved or in charge of such a case is easily enough explained by society's squeamishness; that same explanation is given for the fact that our narrator, John Moore, though a reporter for the New York Times, never attempts to report on the highly shocking events in the novel.


Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the Alienist of the title, the principal investigator, and the mouthpiece for what I imagine is a somewhat more sophisticated view of serial killer profiling than was actually available in the 1890s. Two other investigators (Jewish brothers, who supply some of the comedic byplay to offset the gruesome details of the murders) are given the responsibility of introducing fingerprint evidence and also travelling to remote places to gather evidence and provide a bit of historical background on the American Indians of the time (and the generation before).


This is not a "puzzle" mystery - we discover the murderer pretty much in lockstep with Kreizler, Moore, and their somewhat anachronistic but nonetheless welcome female detective-by-courtesy, Sara Howard, whose largest contribution to the profiling solution is to bring a woman's perspective (rather oversimplified) that women can also be abusers, and that such abuse is not necessarily physical.


Not sure what real-life modern-day profilers would think of Carr's explication of the killer's psyche or his fictional characters' subsequent ability to track him down starting with archival resources (pleased to see a plug for the profession, though!) It was convincing enough for my fiction-reading purposes, and seemed consonant with what I have learned through other (equally unreliable) sources such as the TV show "Criminal Minds". It was the perhaps over-enthusiastic dips into psychiatry, along with the very enthusiastic depictions of New York social history, that made me wonder whether Carr was casting all his bread upon the waters at once; I do enjoy good historical research in any kind of novel, but there was a great deal of explaining and describing here that, it seemed to me, wasn't all entirely focused on the telling of the story at hand, even if you concede that a mystery novelist has to create red herrings for his readers.


I could see the overarching backstory for principal characters being set up: Sara Howard is perched ambiguously in a non-romantic but potentially romantic situation for both Kreizler - who devastatingly loses a romantic interest in the course of this novel - and Moore - who, we are given to understand, has suffered a similar devastating loss just before the events. Unfortunately I made the mistake of reading online reviews for subsequent volumes in the series, and the consensus (if such a thing exists) was that the quality drops off. So though I did enjoy this one, I may not be in a hurry to revisit the series.

Still Life (Penny)

Still Life - Louise Penny

The title of this book has at least two meanings in the context of the work: first, and most obviously, the victim of the murder is an artist (and her work - though not exactly still life - contains clues that point to the murderer); secondly, there are references in various conversations to people who do not progress morally, who have "still" (i.e. unmoving, unprogressing) lives.


I already like Chief Inspector Gamache, which is a good thing, as he has numerous further adventures and two of them await me on my shelf. And I like his faithful lieutenant, Beauvoir. I am left speculating whether Agent Yvette Nichol is going to have a story arc of her own in which she learns not to let her own egotisms and insecurities stand between her and becoming a good officer. She certainly gets the rough edge of Gamache's tongue in this volume; I am wondering if she is the police equivalent to the much darker case of the murderer - someone who obstinately refuses to learn, but wallows in past mistakes. As such, she might be a one-off character.


The jury's still out for me on whether I'm going to embrace this series whole-heartedly. There's something about the rather jumpy conversational style that holds me at a bit of a distance from the characters. I can't quite put my finger on it. On the other hand, I really liked the characterizations (the gay couple running the Bistro, and the sharp-tongued eminent old lady who's a poet, stand out for me). I liked the rural Quebec setting, and the fact that Gamache was clearly an outsider in some ways, but still knew his way about. I liked the range of cultural reference, and the way that the police officers didn't just listen to the answers to their questions, but also read the way people answered (or didn't answer) them. I liked the specificity and oddness of the detail about hunting bows and painting technique.


Onward to volume 2 in the series for me.