Saturday, October 18, 2008

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

I thought this murder mystery was quite enjoyable. I liked seeing Alleyn fall in love (and seeing his mother, as well). The plot itself was a bit off--it felt like the detectives were doing a lot of clean up work and the guilty party was quite clearly indicated for most of the book, until a quick twist at the end. I thought Dame Marsh handled the twists and managed the artists fairly well, for the most part.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson

I thought that this memoir was quite funny and engaging at times, and that Ms. Dickinson managed to avoid one of her habits that most annoys me in her column (that is, scripting responses as a form of advice). I do think that there were moments when the author was trying to have it all. For example, in the prologue, as she described her ex-husband offering to help her mother before their marriage, she notes that the ex-husband (almost viciously denied a name in a book that names most of the other characters, including her current romantic interest) didn't get it, and complains about having to go outside, in the cold, with no warm clothes, to fix his shoddy job of cutting down a tree. I'm not sure why she had to go outside herself, and why she couldn't take a moment to find gloves and a coat. This ancedote sums up my complaints with the book. I did enjoy her style and I thought most of her stories were reasonably well selected.

The Story of Edward Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I really enjoyed reading this book. I thought Mr. Wroblewski did a good job of adapting the Hamlet story to Wisconsin dog breeders. Although the matches to the play are pretty close, they certainly don't overshadow the story at hand. I thought that Almondine was absolutely luminous. I appreciated that Mr. Wroblewski did not tie up all the loose ends. This book was a long read, but well-worth the time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

Although I found Twilight oddly compelling, I liked its sequel less. I think this book continues a disturbing pattern in Bella and Edward's relationship; his behavior strikes me as abusive and controlling. Furthermore, although I fully support a woman's right to choose to stay at home, I feel like Bella dismisses all options that aren't related to Edward without much of a thought. She throws herself into motorcycle riding, only in reaction to the way Edward has treated her. Ms. Meyer's style hasn't noticeably improved either.

The Believers by Zoë Heller

I received this novel through Barnes and Noble's First Look ARC program. I enjoyed Ms. Heller's style; her writing was very easy for me to read. I liked the idea of the book, but I wonder whether it all comes together in the end. I appreciate Ms. Heller's general resistance to easy closing (people break up rather than getting together or getting pregnant), but I don't know that I know any of the characters quite well enough because each shares the spotlight with so many others. I'm sure my views will develop through the discussion program, and I plan on posting my final review from that on this post in about a month, but for now my evaluation of this novel is promising, but ultimately failing to cohere.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

This book recounts a famous Victorian murder mystery that fueled detective fiction written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. I think Summerscale has done a great job telling the story of the murder. I also appreciated her thoughts on the creation of the detective and the detective hero. I think she gets into a little bit of trouble as she tries too closely to merge the detective hero and Whicher into one overarching figure. She begins to use literary descriptions of detectives as "proof" for elements of Whicher's behavior and attitudes. Overall, though, I think this book is a smart piece of work.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I found this book a delightful satire of academia generally, and the British system of universities during the second half of the twentieth century particularly. Jim is a hoot; I particularly adore how he conspires with Christine to hide the damage to the bedsheets after he burns a hole smoking in bed. Overall, though, the book is classic humor, and wonderful satire, and well worth taking the time to read.

Puntos de Partida Workbook by Alice Arana

I found this workbook better than the textbook it accompanies. The exercises provided rigorous review of grammatical points, and the mi diario sections, among others, encouraged me to write prose of my own, which constituted an important part of learning the language for me.

Puntos de Partida by Marty Knorre

I disliked this textbook. Partially, the problem was that I am learning Spanish primarily to read the literature, and not to speak it necessarily, while the book was geared toward speaking skills and aural comprehension. Far more problematic, though, was its presentation of verbs: there is not an overview first, so it feels like one thing after another being thrown at you with no rhyme or reason. Generally, I wasn't pleased with the organization of each chapter, either. I would especially warn self-teachers away from this book.

The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo

I did not find this book particularly enjoyable. It might have been the translation, but I wasn't crazy about the style. Furthermore, I felt like the simple moral of the story was overdone and overwrought. Borges gets the same point across much more movingly in a short story. Also, I felt like the point of the story was a bit simple.

The Collected Stories of Amanda Cross by Amanda Cross

I thought that this collection was quite entertaining. Although short murder mysteries often do not succeed as well as their novel-length counterparts, I thought Cross admirably avoided this difficulty by writing about puzzles and mysteries that were not necessarily murders. Some of the stories Cross included (including the one about the English professor accused of murdering one of her students, the one of the foundling baby, and the one about the professor who went missing) were quite memorably and good, if a little heavy-handed in their particular brand of feminism.

The James Joyce Murder by Amanda Cross

I found this mystery by Amanda Cross far more satisfying than her first attempt, In the Last Analysis. This story follows the house mystery format much more closely, and in addition, has a very strong James Joyce tie-in. (Not only is it about James Joyce's letters with his publisher, but the chapter headings match the titles of the Dubliners stories). I thought it advanced the Kate-Reed romance story line and told us a lot about Kate's character without taking away from the murder mystery plot. Highly entertaining.

In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross

In this mystery, Kate Fansler sets out to prove that her psychologist friend did not murder a student of hers. While I think Cross captures her detective, and the friendship between her detective and the suspect and his wife quite well, I am a little hesitant about the ultimate solution; it is so complicated, I'm not sure it's fair to readers, and that it could be guessed. Still, I'm delighted to have found another quite readable mystery writer.

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

This book was as I expected, no worse and no better. Paolini's prose is somewhat awkward, but serviceable. His plotting and characters seem very formulaic, and while I admire his linguistic attempts, he's no philologist (and no Tolkien, for that matter). The real flaw of this book (which felt in some ways like a holding pattern, deferring the real trial until the final book) was the plodding plot; Paolini has a poor sense of timing and let many questions simmer and develop for far too long. Still, since I am now this far in, I will probably read the fourth book when it comes out.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Reconstructing Womanhood by Hazel Carby

In this work, Hazel Carby challenges the dominant narratives of African-American cultural history and its pattern of black women writers in order to include urban confrontations in fiction. Carby starts by laying the groundwork and acknowledging the black, feminist scholars and critics who have preceded her. Then she re-examines antebellum racial and gender relationships, especially questioning the ideal of womanhood. She reads both Northern and Southern antebellum texts, including Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl before moving on to such authors as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Iola Leroy), Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Pauline Hopkins. Utimately Carby identifies a renaissance in African American literature during the turn of the twentieth century, and complicates the tradition of African American fiction to consider its previously neglected engagement with the struggles of the urban working class. I thought this book was very neatly assembled, and its readings of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (the part I was looking to read, and the one I am most qualified to assess) were quite sharp.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I could not put this book down. Ms. Shaffer and Ms. Barrows have written an epistolary novel, and handled the form so well, that this book really shows the best of what such a novel can be. Furthermore, the characters are memorable, and, for the most part, loveable. They meet loss and oppression with grace, generosity, kindness, and a willingness to love and trust. They also love books and reading (which makes me love them all the more). Finally, although this book deals with tragic circumstances, it ends up affirming the power of the human spirit, and the value of kindness and love. I am so pleased to have read such an uplifting and wonderful book.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey by Edith Hall

I was disappointed by this book. In attempting to give a cohesive cultural history of the Odyssey, Edith Hall makes two missteps. First, she gives in to the temptation to read everything that matches some element of the Odyssey as consciously indebted to that work (although not as badly as she could have), and second, she has chosen a topic that is entirely too broad. She would be better advised to find some way to limit her topic and write a more specific book. All that is to say, I find her readings interesting, and they make sense, but they ultimately do not work for me.

Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere by Anna Brickhouse

In this book, Anna Brickhouse re-reads 19th-century American literature as being in significant dialogue with the rest of the hemisphere, even as politically, the US remains in a disengaged and antagonistic stance towards its neighbors. Brickhouse does an excellent job recuperating several texts and authors (including an American poet), and makes some intelligent guesses at identifying an anonymous author. I appreciated both the book's scope and its methodology. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter that sets The Last of the Mohicans against the anonymous Jicoténcal, and I am impressed by her incorporation of French and Spanish sources.

Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans by Shannon Lee Dawdy

In this book, Shannon Lee Dawdy describes the French colonial experience in New Orleans in the context of what she calls rogue colonialism: colonials working primarily in their own interests to create a society and economy which the sponsoring powers do not intend to create. This theory seems to come out of what I take to be the major scholarly innovation of the book: a more full account of the large extent to which smuggling shaped New Orleans during these years, and smuggling's influence on the New Orleanians' rebellion against the Spanish governor who seemed likely to crack down on smuggling. Dawdy starts by surveying the written records that describe New Orleans during this period; she contends their use of "disordered" as a description of the city constitutions a tacit invitation to smugglers. She also spends time talking about the design of the city and the class and racial make-up of its inhabitants. Dawdy has arranged her book very well; each chapter is focused and well-researched (I'm particularly impressed by the range of sources she musters), but they all contribute convincingly to her overall argument.

Pictures from Another Time by Kara Walker et al.

This book contains excellent (insofar as is possible) reproductions of Kara Walker's life-sized installations of silhouettes, and several essays and an interview with Walker contextualizing the artwork. This work is both incredibly skilled and incredibly disturbing. Walker turns convention and remembered history on their sides in order to demonstrate some of the horrors in the American sub-conscious. I think the artwork is important, and that the essays open several avenues of interpretation toward piecing together a tentative understanding of this art.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Other Souths: Diversity and Difference in the US South, Reconstruction to Present, edited by Pippa Holloway

I enjoyed this collection of historical essays about the South. As the subtitle implies, each essay addresses some aspect of history in the US South from about 1877 to the present, and each essay shows the South as a place of diversity and difference rather than as a monolithic bloc, but at times the collection still felt incredibly disparate. I think that the essays on the origins of folk legend John Henry (which reclaims the experience of man beating machine in a larger sense), the desegregation of Atlanta, and the increase of the Hispanic population in the South may be particularly useful to me going forward. Also among the best were an essay about peddlers and traveling salesmen and an essay about the conviction of four white men who raped a black woman. I enjoyed an article on the Auburn football program in the 1920s.

I think the historical analysis in this book was for the most part quite good. I would have liked to have seen more theory applied, but overall, I am happy I read this collection, and I plan to return to some of the essays in the future, as I teach and write about the South.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Run by Ann Patchett

I read this book because I enjoyed Patchett's earlier Bel Canto. This novel starts off on a bit of a red herring; the reader learns about a statue that has been in Bernadette Doyle's family since they lived in Ireland, and although the book examines closely questions of family and inheritance, Bernadette fades off in a disappointing way. Most of the book's action happens in one day; this fact made the story a little cramped and improbable, but not intolerably so. The title plays nicely on both political and physical meanings of the word run. I would have liked more of Sullivan Doyle (the black sheep of the family)'s story, and more of Father Sullivan's relationship with his nephew Teddy. However, I felt the story came together nicely into a challenging but loving tale of a family coping with crisis.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

I recently re-read this book and was particularly struck by the way that Jacobs both appeals to and rejects the possibility of a female community across gender lines. It seems that this sisterhood is only possible as the potential sisters are farther and farther removed from slavery and the sites of her suffering (and Karen Sanchez-Eppler makes a good point about motherhood replacing chastity as the female virtue which Jacobs uses as a standard). I was also struck, this time, by her persistent inclusion of many stories and narratives into her own; even though she is never beaten or sent to work in the fields, she includes stories of horrific brutality directed against slaves. Finally, I was interested in the contests surrounded around writing--which allows Jacobs to compete with Dr. Flint in terms of her cunning.

Resisting History by Barbara Ladd

I think I could have found this book more helpful than I did. In some senses, Ladd seems to be trying to recuperate the way Faulkner writes women in As I Lay Dying and Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse. Her concerns are gender, choice, agency, authorship, and the act of writing in As I Lay Dying, A Fable, The Golden Apples, and Tell My Horse. She contends that the presence of women and hybridities in these stories challenges the monolithic narrative of History and divides it into several different narratives. Her readings apply Walter Benjamin's Marxist analysis to these texts and attempts to include the study of space in addition to Benjamin's temporal approach. As this review may indicate, though, I had trouble following exactly what unified this study.

The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Professor Bloch uses a delightful tone, and I found his analysis quite relevant to the text at hand. The book is quite well-designed, presenting the story before anything else, and then giving a mathematical analysis of some of the figures in the story. I appreciated the care used to select the mathematical examples; for while some were easier to follow for me than others (I found the analysis of the structure of the library spatially a little difficult), he used the math to make very good points about the implications of the story. While Professor Bloch held back from giving a full reading of the story, I found his analysis quite useful in my own ways of thinking about the truly unimaginable size and nature of the library. This book should not scare off anyone because of its mathematics.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie Fiedler

I read the first edition (published in 1960) of this book. Fiedler writes more casually than academics today: he neither uses extensive footnotes nor includes a bibliography, and at times his perspective on women seems a bit off to me. Still, this book is mammoth (both in size and reputation).

Fiedler starts by tracing the history of the seduction novel in England and elsewhere. He contends that love and death are two of the most salient themes of the American novel, and that in American literature, the Clarissa figure becomes split into a dark lady and an angelic, fair lady. He identifies James Fenimore Cooper's historical romances with those of Sir Walter Scott, and traces a gothic tradition that starts with Charles Brockden Brown, goes through the work of Poe, to a full-blown Faustian bargain, whether done by Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or in Moby Dick, or in Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, Fiedler identifies gothic as the most successful form in America. Fiedler also traces the male homosocial bond that crosses racial boundaries, and identifies this bond as extremely important (Huck-Jim, Ishmael-Queequeg, and Natty Bumpo-Chingachgook all provide examples). He also reads Faulkner (especially Absalom, Absalom!) and Pierre to great profit.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Melodramatic Imagination by Peter Brooks

In this book, Peter Brooks investigates melodrama as an historical genre that grows, quite literally, out of musical dramas and pantomimes produced in France during the first half of the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that these productions dramatize what he calls the moral occult, or virtue for the sake of virtue. They supposed a Manchiean world view, with two extremes and no middle ground. I found his reading of these early French plays very convincing--he seems to have a strong sense of the genre and the time period. He claims that as nineteenth century drama moves away from the excess of the form, this struggle becomes better set off in the novel. He ends by reading two authors: Balzac and James. Both of these authors receive a general reading before Brooks gives a close reading of Pere Goriot and The Wings of the Dove in his successful demonstration of his theory that while Balzac's melodrama is external, James presents an internal melodrama of consciousness. Although this book does not deal with authors or even genres that particularly interest me, I would go back to this theory and use it if my interests develop in this direction.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How Novels Think by Nancy Armstrong

This book combines intelligent work in theory and history with close readings of a number of novels to illustrate its central thesis, namely that the novel, as a form, makes the concept of the individual, as we understand it today, possible.

Armstrong contends that 18th century novels show how a bad subject chooses to join society and how the self-discipline necessary to do so actually increases freedom. Victorian novels use women to displace man's "savage" characteristics, and to maintain the illusion of the development of mankind in a linear, monogeneic fashion, although vampire and other gothic stories trouble this concept with the possibility of polygenity.

I found this book very smart, and helpful, although sometimes it was difficult for me to follow her arguments. I thought she did a good job of deploying close readings to support her claims.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

On my most recent re-read of this novel, I was struck by Thomas Sutpen's racial ambiguity, especially in the eyes of Miss Rosa. It seems partially to be a class thing, but it also makes him align more neatly with his son, Charles Bon.

I was also struck by (but don't know how to handle) the multiple references to the "fairy tale" or "ogre tale" (in Miss Rosa's words) of the Sutpen story. If this story could be considered a fairy tale (and this claim might be a way at getting at the mythic status of the story in the community), it is an original fairy tale (one with a dark ending), scaring the children back into submission, rather than a Disney one that ends happily ever after.

Finally, in my discussions of the book this time around, I heard another compelling explanation of the Haiti thing. I had always chalked the reference up to Haiti's compelling power in the culture--you could say "Haiti" and even in the wrong time and place it would conjure up the memories of the only successful slave rebellion. But someone else pointed out that it could be Faulkner playing with his readers, intentionally misplacing it to show the constructed and contingent nature of the history that he is relating, telling them that the novel is all, in some important sense, just a story that couldn't possibly have happened. I'm not entirely convinced by this explanation, either, but it's another way of thinking about one of the novel's thorny problems. I find this book opening new possibilities and new depths every time that I read it.

Without Sanctuary by James Allen, Jon Lewis, Leon Litwack, and Hilton Als

This book contains a few essays and almost 100 images of postcards produced at lynchings across the South and the West of the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. One of the essays gives a moving history of lynching, highlighting the offenses (many minor, many non-existent except in the minds of the lynchers) for which prominent members of the white community often brutally tortured and killed men, women, and children. Another reflects a little on what it means to collect these postcards and display them (the book accompanied an exhibit put together by the man who collected these postcards).

The power (and, in some ways, the point) of lynching lay in its ability not only to inflict pain, suffering, and death on one person, but in its terrorist hold over an entire race of people--sometimes these lynchings occurred only because one hadn't happened in a while. Thus, the postcards became an essential part of the lynchings' work: they let everyone who hadn't been at the lynching see exactly what had happened. Although towns eventually grew embarrassed by the postcards, and some went so far as to prohibit their sale, and though some anti-lynching organizations published similar images to show the brutality that was happening throughout the South, these postcards still objectify and subject the black male body to a viewer's gaze.

I think it is very important to remember and grapple with the (not-that-long-ago) history of lynching as part of our past, and I think the preservation of postcards such as these helps us do that, but I remain divided on the value of putting them all in a book and selling them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

It has been a long time since I first read this book. I remember enjoying Jane Eyre as a child, but I didn't remember much about the plot, beyond the first chapter at Gateshead, a scene that made a large impression on me. This time, I have read the book in conjunction with lots of criticism, especially of the Madwoman in the Attic type, so I am seeing a lot of Jane in both Bertha Mason and Helen Burns.

I was particularly disturbed by Mr. Rochester this time through; he was a bit more controlling than I had remembered. Neither did I particularly care for St. John Rivers, who forces Jane to learn Hindustani and wants to force her to marry him and sacrifice her to his missionary missions.

The racial ambiguities in this novel (especially as they center around Bertha (the creole), Mr. Rochester, Blanche Ingram, and Mrs. Reed taint both the colonized people and the colonists by association. Brontë seems to contrast the "fairy" and "elf-like" Jane with Bertha Rochester, who is figured as a witch and a vampire. Ultimately, though, Jane is tainted by the same colonial money that taints Rochester--and even from the same family as Uncle Eyre is an agent for the Masons. So while Jane's return to Rochester seems to be from a position of more independence (she has money of her own, and he can no longer subject her to his possessive gaze as he is now blind), that return is complicated by her accession into the colonialist part of the British Empire.

Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez by Franco Moretti

This book examines a class of literary works it classifies as modern epics, including Faust, Moby Dick, The Nieblung's Ring, Ulysses, The Cantos, The Waste Land, The Man Without Qualities, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moretti argues that these works all come from places in a world-system, rather than a nation state, and that the question of the epic form is not whether it appears, but whether it is possible to be successful. Moretti takes a very Darwinian approach to literary criticism: he argues that the form evolves as authors experiment with existing forms--and that some developments work better than others. He begins by looking at the 19th century epic and Faust--in which Goethe uses Mephistopheles in order to give Faust his innocence. Another epic innovation in the 19th century, according to Moretti, is history as a metaphor for geography. These epics have lots of polyphony and contain allegory run amok, in a fragmented, encyclopedic, mechanical presentation of information.

Moretti examines Ulysses and the 20th century in terms of both stream-of-consciousness (and Moretti distinguishes between stream-of-consciousness used to highlight a crisis or move the plot forward and the ordinary, everyday stream-of-consciousness) and polyphony.

Finally, Moretti closes with a look at One Hundred Years of Solitude in which he identifies a different epic project--whereas Ulysses expands spatially but only has a single day, García Márquez's book is very locally centered (on Macondo) in a Buddenbrooks model, but expands over a long period of time. He also considers lo real maravilloso--a move that rehabilitates narrative. Overall, I found this book fairly helpful--while I wonder about his criteria for defining epic, I think his discussions of both stream-of-consciousness and polyphony quite illuminating.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century Fiction by J. Paul Hunter

I found Paul Hunter's Before Novels a helpful approach to understanding the coming of the novel to English literature during the 18th century. In this book's first and shortest section Hunter begins by justifying discussing the beginning of the novel at all (while "novelistic" elements have existed as long as literature, the novel represents a specific conjunction of them), strongly argues against the idea (often associated with followers of Northrop Frye) that the novel develops out of romance, and challenges Ian Watt's thesis of the immediate "triple rise"of the novel (rise of middle class leads to rise of literacy leads to rise of novel). The second part of this section identifies elements of the novel that seem counter-intuitive but were quite present in the eighteenth century that reflect the contexts and pretexts of the novel. In Hunter's second section, he makes the case that the rapid growth in the literate population occured two or three generations before the novel developed. He identifies several new needs in this population's reading materials (looking forward in time, awareness of place, and a loss of traditional oral culture [especially fairy tales]). In his third, and major, section Hunter identifies several types of writing that met the needs of this population before the novel developed, and thus were predecessors of a sort to the novel: newspapers and journalism, didactic tracts (especially guides), diaries, autobiographies, and histories.

Overall, I found Hunter's arguments persuasive. His arguments about the novels themselves make sense to me as a sometime reader of such novels, although I am less familiar with the extraliterary texts that form the basis of his analysis in the bulk of the book. He is quite candid about the difficulties in calculating literacy rates during this entire period, but his arguments make some sense, especially insofar as they do note require the novel to develop immediately in response to a rapid change.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature by Richard Gray

In A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature Richard Gray investigates the Bahktinian dialogue present within the tradition of Southern literature. His first chapter traces the voices of disaster through Southern literature, but instead of beginning and ending with the trauma of the Civil War, Gray includes many different types of voices rehearsing defeat including Native Americans and African Americans and ends his chapter with Southern writers dealing with the Vietnam War. Gray’s second chapter looks at the dialogue of agrarianism: the pastoral voices of Jefferson and the Agrarians, the anti-pastoral responses that query the agrarian dream, and finally “a contemporary and radical rewriting of agrarianism that offers one of the few plausible remaining alternatives to global capitalism” (x). Gray concludes his book by looking at the Southern tradition in its larger context: a transnational dialogue that occurs at the borders and that helps to move the south beyond the popularly conceived “bipolar biracial model of the region and so of the regional dialogue” (xi).

I found this book very helpful. Its methodological approach contests Harold Bloom’s theories presented in The Anxiety of Influence by using a Bahktinian model of dialogue in the strain of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” rather than a Freudian model of influence. This model of dialogue, I think, is a particularly helpful way of dealing with Faulkner in concert with other Southern writers. It also allows critical discussion of the Southern experience to move beyond the trauma of the Civil War (although not beyond trauma entirely) to consider more recent events (like the Vietnam War) and to deconstruct the monolithic Southern past into something more fragmented and fluid.

Gray uses a wide range of examples in his text, never neglecting Faulkner and other famous writers, but including modern authors and concerns as well. He does a better job fitting new voices into the dialogue than he does finding older, ignored voices to include. For example, in the first chapter, Gray acknowledges the dispossession of Native Americans and their experience of defeat long before the Civil War, but the focus of his chapter is incorporating two Vietnam War narratives into the dialogue of loss.

Ultimately, this book does a good job of investigating borders and old formations in order to participate in the documentation of the global south. Gray starts by taking two Southern clichés, the experience of defeat and the agrarian dream, and showing in a detailed history how current authors join an old, tired dialogue and reinvigorate it with contributions valid beyond the borders of the South. These contributions become even more valuable in the third chapter, when Gray demonstrates that not only is the Southern dialogue an integral and organic part of a larger dialogue, but also that the incursion of the larger dialogue in the Southern context helps enable writers to talk back to their predecessors more meaningfully and hopefully than before.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

This mystery was fairly engaging. I appreciated the author's choice of narrator, an autistic boy, who is very sympathetic. The resolution of the mystery is quite satisfying--although it seems a bit pat at first, on closer reflection, I think it reflects the characters the author has established quite well.

The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke

I recently reread these poems in German, and found them both beautiful and haunting.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I recently read this book again for the first time in several years, and I was quite happy to discover that my high opinion of the story was affirmed. This story is an excellent who-dun-it with an engaging main character, a hilarious supporting cast, and a quite satisfying solution.

English Grammar for Students of Spanish by Emily Spinelli

I found this grammar book practically useless. It is designed to supplement Spanish textbooks and fill in any gaps in the student's English grammar. Unfortunately, it only covers the most basic topics of grammar. Often its explanations for how to identify grammatical elements in Spanish are only "the same as in English." I would have preferred to buy a Spanish grammar rather than dallying around with this waste of time, money, and paper.

The Boy's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This mystery finds Dame Frevisse taking more responsibility for herself as Domina Edith's illness prevents her from taking an active hand in the daily affairs of the convent. I appreciated the way that Frazer picked up the threads and hints from earlier mysteries, although the politics of England in this period are still a little bit beyond me. I thought the identity of the criminal was particularly well-hidden (but not in an unfair way) in this story.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I found this book oddly compelling despite several drawbacks. Using prose only remarkable for the vast number of clichés she manages to deploy, Stephenie Meyer tells the story of the quite-possibly-doomed love between the world's most boring girl (aside from her passion for Edward, Bella is clumsy and likes to cook--that's it--and while Meyer claims Bella loves to read, she's too pretentious to get a card at the admittedly-small local library) and the world's most beautiful boy, who happens to be a vampire. The premise of Edward's ambivalence towards Bella is interesting, but the idea of a love affair with no touching plays out much better in Pushing Daisies, which as an additional bonus, doesn't have anywhere near the angst.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

This novel teeters on the edge of romance (in the modern, Harlequin, bodice-ripper sense of the word) and has a heroine with a strikingly anachronistic sense of self and purpose. Other critics lambaste its historical accuracy, but as this work is fictional, deviations from the historical record don't bother me so much. Instead, the attitudes of characters, which strike me as significantly more modern than they should be, are troubling. Still, the story is pretty good (if the ironic foreshadowing a bit self-satisfied at times), and I will probably read more of her Tudor Court novels.

The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

This collection of short stories is quite a mixed bag. The book starts with a voyage across the Atlantic back to England, metaphorically figured as an alienated father. In the course of the book, however, the stories jump back and forth across the Atlantic. There are hints of the gothic, with ghost stories presented as folklore accounts. There is a lengthy account of an old-fashioned English Christmas, and a brief piece on King Philip. "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Diederich Knickerbocker's two posthumous works, bookend the collection. Irving's views on the Native Americans are both surprisingly enlightened, and yet, still deeply patronizing. Despite the mixed genres, the collection is pervaded by a sense of chaos and confusion--the loss of something old without a clear direction of what new thing will replace it.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This novel presents the moral dilemma of a clergyman: a reformer claims that the position that he has been holding as warden of an alms hospital is overpaid by several hundred pounds, according to the terms of the will. Rev. Harding finds himself torn between his responsibility to the church and to his bedesmen. This problem has no good solution, as the morally complex novel refuses to simply condemn anyone; instead, it offers both sympathy for and judgment on all parties involved in the dispute. This satirical novel was a delight to read and I look forward to continuing the chronicles of Barsetshire.

Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

This book, a thriller set in modern-day New York, but the solution to the series of murders lies buried in the past. The mystery part of the plot was pretty entertaining, but I can't say that I cared for all the gory descriptions of murder that accompany the solution.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten by Gary Gallagher

This book presents an even-handed and entertaining account of the way the Civil War appears in Hollywood movies and visual art. Focusing most specifically on the last twenty years, Gallagher identifies four responses to the Civil War (Lost Cause, Unionist, Emancipation, and Reconciliation) and tracks Hollywood's increasingly Emancipationist films in contrast to Lost Cause visual art. He concludes that the most remarkable aspect of the nation's memory of the Civil War is its disregard of the strong Unionist sentiments of the North. Altogether a very enjoyable read.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thinks... by David Lodge

This book pits science against literature, along the lines of Nice Work--only this time, the stakes are raised as a novelist and a cognitive scientist fight about the nature of consciousness. There are a lot of serendipitous coincidences throughout the novel, and they pile on particularly high at the end, but overall, this is a fun read.

Vathek by William Beckford

This short novel tells the tale of Vathek's fall into blasphemy and his ultimate destruction. A critique of his insatiable desires--both for sensual satisfaction and for knowledge--the book disguises some of its harshest commentary with its exotic, Middle Eastern setting.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Bishop's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This mystery again takes Dame Frevisse outside the convent, this time to the funeral of her uncle, Thomas Chaucer. The mystery and its solution build steadily but slowly (and indeed, its definitive proof is limited by the conditions of the time and the investigator)--but this series intrigues me less for its mysteries of death than for its continuing development of the character of Dame Frevisse and its work on elucidating the mystery of what such a life might have been like.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

This book, which has the best megalomaniac since Charles Kinbote, fascinating Egyptian history, not one but two unreliable narrators, and a frantic treasure hunt, raises questions of history, creativity, and interpretation. I love that the story that I took from the novel at its end is not related clearly anywhere, but that I am able to infer it from the precise ways that each of the main narrators (Ralph Trilipush and Harold Ferrell) are unreliable. This story shows an intense desire to re-create and re-make in one's own image, a serious disregard for the truth, and a lot of humor (if gruesome humor) throughout. I look forward to re-reading this book. The setting (nearby Howard Carter's discovery of King Tutankhamen) is icing on the cake.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Wyndham Case by Jill Paton Walsh

This mystery is quite enjoyable, in the style of Gaudy Night. In addition to a good mystery, there were a lot of academic politics boiling right below the surface, and I loved the romantic tension, and the sub-plot of the missing rare book (which I located as soon as I knew it was lost...). Well worth some attention.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I love this book. Goldman claims (unreliably) to have edited out politics, but not only does he tell a smashingly good adventure story, he uses his edits and redactions (of a supposedly longer and more political instant classic) to make fine points about the nature of narration and genre. This story is quite enjoyable and well worth returning to time and again.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

This book is a really engaging description of the author's madcap tour around Britain right before he leaves for an extend absence in the United States. At times, things get a bit silly (sure, there's no good rail service between Oxford and Cambridge [you have to connect through London]--but you could also take the bus, with which a day trip is very manageable), and at times, Bryson sounds like an unbearable jerk, but overall, I really enjoyed both Bryson's obvious enthusiasm for Britain and his witty description of his trip.

Tintenblut by Cornelia Funke

I enjoyed this book more than its predecessor, Tintenherz. In this sequel, much of the action goes to the Tintenwelt, and the action is much more exciting (at least for me)--also, there's a more thorough and robust investigation of the rules of reading changes into books (although nothing definitive is hashed out by the end)--although I still worry that there's a bit much of the deus ex machina. I'm really interested to see how this series ends up.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This story of self-discovery is intertwined with the discovery of the history of a book--a history that moves backwards. The book in question is a haggadah, but the heroism and tolerance which this book inspires brings out the best in everyone who comes to love it. This story is very well-written, and beautifully conceived.

In the Walled City by Stewart O'Nan

This collection of stories depicts people in flux--and as with O'Nan's novels, the reader gets a strong sense of the characters of the various people involved in the stories. Although sometimes O'Nan gets so caught up in the dead-end lives he describes that he writes dead-end stories, generally this collection is effective and works well as a whole.

Nice Work by David Lodge

This book gets at the differences between the academy and industry. Set in Rummidge, like Changing Places and Small World, and featuring a few returning characters, Nice Work also gives a great send-up of academia. Although this book is not as original as its predecessors, it's still funny and it has a great plot. Booker shortlisted, 1988.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan

This book is one of Stewart O'Nan's better attempts. He does an excellent job of evoking the community response to a local girl's disappearance and the gradual process of secrets coming out into the open. Of course, the facts of her disappearance are secondary to the response, but this book is generally a pretty good portrait of a loss.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

This satire, which I found more robust and enjoyable than A Handful of Dust, finds room to criticize Oxbridge, boarding schools, society, religion, and the English penal system, to name a few things, in a rollicking romp through a mistaken exile from higher education. Really funny and really biting.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

This novel raises the stakes for Lord Peter--this time he has to find the solution to his brother's murder charge. I particularly enjoyed Peter's difficulty in moving past both his brother's and his sister's additional obstructions. Very satisfying.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy Sayers

This collection of short stories is entirely comprised of Lord Peter stories. The stories are generally good--but if you've read Lord Peter, they're all repeats...

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This bildungsroman traces the development of one woman's skills in healing and self-confidence during a plague year--one in which her village decides to cut themselves off from the rest of England in the hopes of slowing the spread of the Black Death. I found it to be very well-written, and I loved the complex development of the characters.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This novel is a biting social satire, set in England between the wars. It was a very engaging read, and I was very interested in the ways that architecture was employed to reinforce themes of decay.

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

This book takes the reader along on the author's trip through the United States, tracking early American history. In addition to being quite well-written and very amusing, it seems to offer a fairly cogent, general, early history of American exploration, carefully tracking aspects of history that aren't necessarily taught in American elementary schools. It's a little casual for a formal history book (though it has a robust bibliography) and it's by no means comprehensive (although it is upfront about what it includes and excludes and why)--but well worth the read.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

This book combines a reasonably entertaining story about a little girl's mistake and its consequences with a meditation on the nature of authorship and what writing can and cannot do. I think the story is reasonably well-done (although the beginning is much stronger than the end), and the meta-fiction aspect is not bad, but overall, it might be trying to do a little much. Booker shortlisted, 2001.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

This book is a fascinating study of the process of reading. As the reader-hero attempts to read a book whose identity and content are constantly shifting, Calvino explores the relationship between stories and communities and the reader and the text. This book is easily one of the best I've read all year; after reading the first chapter, I returned the library copy and bought my own to read.

The Wild Palms by William Faulkner

This novel tells two unrelated stories in an interweaving pattern: the story of a young doctor's elopement with a married woman and the story of a convict's tribulations when the Mississippi River floods. Although neither of these stories are set in Yoknapatawpha, they are still very Faulknerian (his elevated diction and syntactically complex sentences remain), and they complement each other very well thematically. I was particularly interested in Faulkner's treatment of the pregnant women, of fate and resignation, and of responsibility.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

I recently re-read this book, which is part-travelogue, part-history, and part-cultural studies, with a good dose of humor as well. Horwitz examines the South's continued fascination with the Civil War. He takes an admirable tone--in his search he encounters all sorts of points of view--and he tends to present them even-handedly, with both perspective and distance, so that readers can draw their own opinions. Although this book doesn't hit the entire former Confederacy, it provides a humorous and enlightening overview of what the Civil War means to some parts of current US culture.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This novel, a gentle portrait of the brief interactions between four people who come together in an abandoned Italian villa during the final days of World War Two, gives an account of the tentative and fragile process of healing. Although not much happens, much is revealed in this beautiful book. Booker award winner (shared), 1992.

The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

It took me a while to get into this novel because I was having a hard time placing the narrators and the narrative interjections. It builds up, along with memories of what was lost in a car accident, a sense of purpose and of unfinished business. There are several innovative stylistic moves on the part of O'Nan, including great, self-aware narrative commentary, and a Time's Arrow-like section that moves backward at the end of the book.

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan

This novel chronicles the life of a woman while she waits for her husband to be paroled from jail after he has been sentenced to life for a murder which he may or may not have committed. His innocence isn't exactly the point; instead it's his wife's failures and successes as she tries to navigate life in a world radically changed. At times, I'm slightly mistrustful of the woman O'Nan has created; I have a slight sense that she doesn't quite ring true, although I have difficulty pinpointing exactly what makes me feel that way. Her steady endurance and her warm heart win me over, however,

The Outlaw's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This mystery builds slowly, and relies on Dame Frevisse's ability to read character as much as her ability to read clues. Although she's outside of the convent when she's waylaid by her long-lost cousin, an outlaw, she still has severe limitations on the amount of direct detecting she can do. Not my favorite of this series, but a very nice portrait of medieval life in a well-to-do household.

The Golden Ball and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

These stories have more to do with the supernatural, moral decisions, and finding happiness than with the more conventional body in the bathtub stories that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple solve. There are no recurring characters, and some of the mysteries end entirely benevolently, with their protagonists discovering new things about themselves. A refreshing collection.

To Let by John Galsworthy

The end of this trilogy does not disappoint. Although the decisions made and habits formed in the earliest parts of the saga continue their lasting effect over the destiny of the youngest members of the family, the book is a gorgeous elegy to a certain instinct of possession--an elegy which all the while lovingly acknowledges the failures of those who possess this instinct. The story fits together very well. Little details also delighted me--most of all, the family name, Forsyte, which could not possibly be an accident. I look forward to returning to this saga time and time again.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

This book offered a sweet story about fitting in. It tells the story of the unlikely friendship between the Donaldson-Dickersons and the Yazdans that develops after both families adopt daughters from Korea. Although the book was uneven at times (some parts felt like they developed awfully quickly), it was an enjoyable read, full of warmth and humor.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Akhnaton by Agatha Christie

This play brings up big questions of both religion and imperialism. In telling the story of the rise and fall of an Egyptian king who embraced monotheism and humane concepts such as ending slavery, war, and oppression, Christie draws parallels between that king's religion and the Christian faith, and between the British and Egyptian empires. She also investigates the relationship between art, culture, and war, and the relationship between a king, his country, and the people.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

This book follows a pattern established by Mosse's earlier Labyrinth and indeed, shares its location and several peripheral characters with the older book. In an investigation that eventually take a supernatural turn (and that makes the inevitable Grail reference), Meredith Martin comes to the south of France to find her family, and gets caught up in a mystery that's more than 100 years old. I read this book because it was heavily hyped, and I have to admit, at the end, there was more smoke than fire. Both the plot (in its structure) and the writing itself were full of clichés, and I'm not sure I buy the initial motivation of the 1890s murderer. This book is probably just the type of book I would write if I were a writer, but I suppose that's why I confine my literary activities to reading and criticism.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Small World by David Lodge

A summer of conference-going, a highly coveted UNESCO chair of making a ridiculous sum of money for no work, a helpful airport employee, a mysterious, yet brilliant, appearing-then-disappearing grad student, a street performance of The Wasteland and old favorites Phillip Swallow and Morris Zapp make this book an excellent read. In his highly literate, self-aware, and allusive send-up of the academic conference scene, David Lodge outdoes himself.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan

I read this book last night. I thought it was well-written, in terms of style, and it seemed to be very well-researched (although it's obvious the publisher conceived of the audience as non-academic: I would have loved some footnotes). I thought O'Nan did an excellent job capturing the human side of the tragedy, and also giving a fairly comprehensive picture of what happened and how it happened from before the fire (including a preliminary section on a Cleveland menagerie tent fire in 1942) until 1999. I had no idea that there had been a circus tent fire in Hartford in 1944, and now I feel like I have a very good sense of what generally happened. I cannot recommend this book quite as enthusiastically as I have his other works, however, because it's a very tough read emotionally. There's a bit of graphic detail about how people died (and how even those who didn't die in the fire suffered physically), there's at least one photograph of a dead body (it's not tasteless, and was published in newspapers as part of an attempt to identify the girl, known as Little Miss 1565, but still surprised me when I turned the page and found it), and there's a lot of human suffering in this book. I personally think that the stories of the courageous and not-so-courageous men and women who experienced the fire more than compensates for the disturbing, violent, and sad passages, but I wanted to be upfront about the fact that this book could be one of the most difficult I've read this year, emotionally, and let people decide for themselves whether they want to spend their time reading that kind of book, or sticking to the fiction (which has the advantage, even in cases of suffering as appalling as those in this book, of not being true if you're the type of person whom graphic or very sad stories upsets).

Endless Night by Agatha Christie

This mystery was one of those difficult ones where the nuts and bolts of the death does not happen until very near the end. Still, all the clues were there (and some of them even unsettled me as I was reading them the first time)--the difficult part is pinpointing what there is to be a mystery about. It also has a great portrait of a criminal's mind.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Murder at Hazelmoor (The Sittaford Mystery) by Agatha Christie

I was sure I knew the solution to this mystery all the time I was reading it--and as it turns out, I was dead wrong. Christie doesn't use one of her usual detectives for this story, but instead mostly follows the work of the fiancée of the accused, Emily Trefusis. I thought this mystery was particularly well-done; I love mysteries that have all sorts of secondary and tertiary plots running through them as well.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie wrote this mystery late in her career, and there are definite moments of nostalgia, but it's also well-plotted and quite engaging. As Poirot explains just what was going on (which, on reflection was all there in the earlier parts of the story) to his friend Ariadne Oliver, there's lots of allusion: we get our own Lady MacBeth! I was very satisfied with this mystery.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Changing Places by David Lodge

This novel is an uproariously funny send-up of academia, full of self-conscious moments (most notably including the book Let's Write a Novel whose advice always manages to conflict with what's actually happening in the novel) and the game Humiliation (think: Never Have I Ever...with books!). I look forward to reading more of Lodge's work.

The Just Vengeance by Dorothy L. Sayers

This play reads like a medieval mystery play. It takes an airman shot down during WWII back to his home city, where he sees Cain's murder of Abel and Christ's crucifixion. The airman is trying to figure how justice works in this world and what he believes.

Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories starts as less detection than problem-solving. Parker Pyne, although labeled as a detective in the title, starts by helping people find contentment in their lives, without actually solving mysteries. Later, he does move on to mystery solving, as he travels around the Middle East.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple does not come into this mystery into very late in the story. So there's more exposition than detection, as it turns out. But there's lots of great misdirection, still.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy Sayers

This collection of short stories has some Lord Peter, some Monty Egg, and lots of other stories. I thought some of the stories were quite intriguing. I particularly liked "The Professor's Manuscript" (a Montague Egg story) and "The Milk-Bottles." The last story gets a bit super-natural before it's all said and done. A solid collection.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Hangman's Holiday by Dorothy Sayers

I enjoyed this collection of short stories. All the Lord Peter stories are available in the Lord Peter omnibus edition, but there are many more stories in this book. Montague Egg, a traveling wine salesman solves a number of mysteries (although these mysteries are sometimes more puzzles than murders). I also loved "The Man Who Knew How," which is a really creepy story.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Snow Angels by Stewart O'Nan

This book has interweaving chapters chronicling the destruction of two families. Although the first chapter reveals the basics of where the story is headed, it makes the trip in a beautiful and heartbreaking way. The real strength of this novel, for me, is its wonderful characterizations: O'Nan neither idealizes nor condemns, but instead creates wonderfully sympathetic people making both good and bad decisions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie

This mystery was actually written as a play; Charles Osbourne took the play and added the appropriate filler to make it read like a novel after Christie's death. The piece's origin on the stage is obvious, and you can see a lot of the nuts and bolts that are usually more well-hidden in a novel, partly I think to make the theatre-going experience that much better for the viewers. You can tell, also, that the prose isn't all Christie's, but the plot is quite good and more than makes up for it.

The Servant's Tale by Margaret Frazer

I enjoyed this mystery. It's set more outside of the convent than the first Dame Frevisse mystery, but she still manages to maintain her keen eye on what's happening. It also has a very good point about how dangerous a little knowledge can be. I loved the players, and I loved Sister Frevisse for her willingness to trust them.

Brown: the Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. It reads very beautifully; Rodriguez has a real command of the language. Additionally, the book is full of allusion and neat references. Still, underneath that content, the politics of the book are vaguely disturbing, and the book itself is so self-contradictory that I don't know if it's possible to take it seriously at all. Rodriguez wants brown to signify everything--which means it ultimately is no help.

The Mansion by William Faulkner

I found this book repetitive at times (Faulkner rewrites parts of the story not only from the earlier two books in the Snopes trilogy but also from other parts of his career) and frustrating at others. I do think that Faulkner has developed and nuanced his idea of what it means to be a Snopes from when he introduced Byron Snopes in Flags in the Dust. I also can't help but let Linda get under my skin. I'm not comfortable with her character, even though she is the only one in the novel who doesn't have to listen to Gavin Stevens all the time.

The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Although I found the narrator of this book frustrating, it was a very challenging and enjoyable read. I loved the references to the Odyssey and to Proust especially. I also thought the implications of a return to primitive roots was very well played out.

Faulkner's Fictive Architecture by William Ruzicka

This book explores Faulkner's architecture in several, but by no means all, of his novels. It has a good theoretical component, excellent floor plans, and fairly keen observations. It is organized by novel rather than by type of architecture.

William Faulkner and the Tangible Past by Thomas Hines

Written by an architecture professor with familial connections to Faulkner, this book provides an overview of architectural styles at play in Faulkner's fiction by style rather than by book. The architecture side of things seems solid. In terms of Faulknerian criticism, this book is an heir of Jane Haynes's William Faulkner: His Tippah County Heritage and William Faulkner: His Lafayette County Heritage, although this book has more areas related to Faulkner's fiction. O good overview of the architecture, and lots of beautiful plates.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Town by William Faulkner

The second part of the Snopes trilogy builds more consistently than the first. In it, Flem Snopes makes the main part of his bid for respectability, the footprints on his way up, as he actually works against the less-than-savory members of his family, including Montgomery Ward and I.O.. Eula Varner remains fascinating, especially to Gavin Stevens, who also takes a liking to her daughter Linda. Although we never get Flem's perspective, this novel really helps to flesh out his character.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A String of Pearls (Sweeney Todd) edited by Robert Mack

This reprint of a penny dreadful is the original source of the Sweeney Todd legend. Stylistically, it bears the marks of its quick production, multiple authors, and awareness of its (middle to lower class) reading public. The tale is Dickensian in scope--much more sprawling than the Sondheim adaptation. The major difference, though, is the motivation for Sweeney's villainy: Sondheim invents (or picks up on a later development of) a family for Todd so his tale is that of revenge, rather than greed. This book is very aware of the plight of the poor, and also that of the "insane." A quick and enjoyable read.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

In this novel, when Lord Peter has a car accident in East Anglia, he finds himself conscripted to help ring the bells for the nine-hour-long celebration of the New Year. He fills in ably (is there anything Lord Peter can't do?), and goes on his merry way. He's summoned back around Easter once a strange body is found in a fresh grave. This mystery is full of top-notch detecting (especially figuring out a note encrypted in the tolling of the church bells) and a dash of divine intervention (both in the means of murder and in the way a rather dubious character is brought to justice). There's also a fantastic hiding place for a long-lost emerald necklace.

Third Girl by Agatha Christie

This mystery is clearly one of Christie's later works; it's set in the sixties, England's changing, and Poirot's aging. In fact, one of the characters starts to come to him with a problem and then changes her mind because he's too old. Ariadne Oliver reappears, in fine form. There are some nice bits of mis-recognition in the text, perhaps even too many to make it entirely believable, but in the end it's well worth reading.

The Boomerang Clue or Why Didn't They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie

This mystery features none of Christie's usual detectives, the two people who end up detecting don't use the police, or have conventional techniques. There's a bit of a cover-up over the Evans of the title, and a double- and a triple-cross in terms of how you feel about the characters, but overall I found this mystery quite enjoyable. I particularly loved the moments when these amateurs thought they were being quite subtle and the other characters saw through their work.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace

I really liked this mystery, even though Lord Peter was nowhere to be found. I think the epistolary technique is very engaging in this case, and very cleverly deployed. I also thought the science of the solution (which didn't so much solve the mystery as provide evidence for the court of law) was well-done, understandable, and still rather subtle and accurate.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories contains more suspense/supernatural thrillers than out and out mysteries. Often, they are not the type of puzzles that require police aid or police intervention. Also, Hercule Poirot only appears in one of the mysteries. Still, I thought some of these stories were quite good, especially the title story, "Witness for the Prosecution," and "The Blue Jar."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

This novel is basically a thriller set against the backdrop of the fourth crusade and a hunt for the Holy Grail. Mosse has added a unique twist to what the Grail actually means, but otherwise, it's pretty rote fiction. The labyrinth appears over and over again, but Alice can find out everything she needs to know about it from the internet. There are also three grail books, known as the Labyrinth trilogy, that remain rather opaque. By the end of the book Mosse apparently gets bored of her historical story and has a present-day character narrate it rapidly. I like the idea of witnessing history on which the book ends, but it's a little bit of a slog to get there.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies

This book purports to offer a revisionist history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Gavin Menzies (who served in the British navy) pulls together a variety of types of "evidence" that he claims prove that not only did the Chinese visit America before the Europeans, but that they circumnavigated the globe, establishing colonies and perfecting their navigational techniques. Menzies begins his book with the tale of the discovery of maps that purportedly offer correct details about the Americas and Africa before Europeans sailed there. The book is narrated in a style that follows Menzies discoveries--and then exclaims that this particular Chinese expedition is the only possible explanation for these discoveries. Light on footnotes and contemptuous of the academic establishment (excepting DNA testing and carbon-dating when they "prove" its conclusions), this book seeks to position itself as unveiling the truth academics have been hiding from the world for years. Unfortunately, Menzies's only area of expertise is navigational (he cannot read medieval Portuguese, Catalan, or Castilian--much less medieval Chinese), and he has a habit of establishing tantalizing possibilities and then assuming that they must be factual because they are possible.

The underlying message of the book is that the Chinese were far more civilized than the Europeans of that time (arguably true) and that they would have been better colonizers of the world than the Europeans (more dubious--especially since here Menzies enters the "what if" game). This message, and the book itself, tends to ignore the fact that people with their own cultures and civilizations were already living in the Americas and that they needed neither Chinese nor European colonization. Inviting people to re-evaluate European voyages of discovery is not a bad thing, but the fact that Menzies felt the need to re-write so much history in such a slipshod way to make that argument bodes ill for his ultimate belief in its power of persuasion.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

This book is a bildungsroman that develops slowly but surely. I liked the thoughts about translation and interpretation based on the narrator's job. I enjoyed watching the bad girl show up time and time again. Mostly, I enjoyed this book because of the narrator's kindness and love not only for the bad girl, but also for the other friends he makes throughout the course of the book.

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

This book is part detective fiction and part apologia for Southern slowness in correcting its racism and bigotry. The story and the writing are alright, but not outstanding in comparison with Faulkner's other work. The real disappointment is that instead of developing sophisticated, challenging and nuanced perspectives on race through character development (as we see in Go Down Moses and Absalom, Absalom!), here Faulkner puts his ideas about how the North, East, and West should back off the South and let it dealt with race on its own terms and in its own time in the mouth of Gavin Stevens and then creates a story where two young boys (one white and one black) and an old, white woman unite to save a black man from almost-certain lynching. There's an element of the coming-of-age story, but mostly this novel is a frustrating and heavy-handed attempt at self-justification.

The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound

This poetry grew on me. It teaches you how to read it as it goes along. I was particularly moved by the poetics of exile and by the way that the poem acts as a museum of impressions. It works on the level of the quotidian, the level of the repeating, and the level of the eternal. I also love the appearances of many languages. I look forward to reading the rest of the Cantos.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This novel starts in a relatively realistic vein before moving to full-flung magical realism before all's said and done. The parts that seem over-determined in the first part (especially the names) fit in with the magical realism of the last quarter. I love the way the family fits together at the end.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

This book chronicles, as its title suggests, the last day of operations at a small town Red Lobster restaurant. Working with the skeletal remains of his staff, manager Manny tries to reach the very end with dignity and compassion. This little novel worked for me. Its ambitions, as far as they go, aren't huge in terms of plot--just 12 hours, and while the novel is very attentive to class issues, to economics, and so forth, it just isn't trying to be the Great Novel of the Proletariat or the Great American Novel--and succeeds the better for doing a more constrained vision well. The novel's style was enjoyable--which is to say it reads very quickly--and I wasn't struck with any annoying stylistic tics, but on the other hand, there were few passages I wanted to remember for their sheer beauty. I look forward to reading more of Stewart O'Nan's work.

Go Down Moses by William Faulkner

I enjoyed returning to this book. I'm not sure what to do with the misogyny this time around. I am more convinced than ever that fragmentation is important to this book, though whether we call it a novel or not is perhaps not the most relevant question. I'm also interested in the inclusion of "Pantaloon in Black," which for all its beauty and power, seems to me a way of dodging the race question by deflecting it onto a character that only appears once in a body of fiction that's so invested in repetition. This collection is really fascinating, and still bears much re-reading.

Tintenherz by Cornelia Funke

In this book, readers can bring characters to life from books. I found the story's pacing a little off (but that could be a language issue, as I was reading in German). I liked the general concept, and of course, I'm sympathetic to anything that investigates the magic of books, but I'm not sure that pulling Meggie away from school for ages worked for me, in terms of suspension of disbelief, and also, I was a bit skeptical of Fengolio's ultimate solution of re-writing. At any rate, I'm going to continue with the second and third books of the series.

Omnibo by Suzanne Freeman

This novella is side-splittingly funny, but also raises some pertinent questions about where we get our food, how we treat our fellow-travelers (both human and animal), and at what price we live in a consumerist society. It's also a quick read.

Awakening by John Galsworthy

This second interlude gives the reader only the perspective of the youngest Joleyn Forsyte, which is a little disorienting, especially after you've gotten so close to his father (who's away almost the entire time).

In Chancery by John Galsworthy

This installment of the Forsyte Saga continues to delight. I'm amazed by the skill Galsworthy shows in making both Irene and Soames so sympathetic. I'm also interested in his use of Victorian techniques in an increasingly modern world. I look forward to the third volume with great expectations.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Jubiabá by Jorge Amado (trans. Margaret Neves)

This book was very intriguing and left me with a lot of questions. I'm particularly interested in the way genre works--Baldo as a samba writer and as an ABC writer, Gordo as a poet, and our narrator as a participant in the moment and someone looking back. There's a brief spoof of a modernist novel and some attention to epic form, as well. I'm also interested in the ways that religion (Macumba), the eye of mercy, slavery, and class consciousness connect up. If anything, this novel works as a bildungsroman and Baldo's transformation from bandit-hero who wants his own ABC to organizer who wants an ABC for the strike is an important part of that work. There are some gendered absences in the novel, especially for Baldo: Lindinalva and his mother are both conspicuously absent and Aunt Luisa departs early. Finally, I'm still trying to figure out why the novel is named for Jubiabá and not Baldo. Very intriguing--an entertaining example of social realism from the 1930s.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

This novel is quite interesting. It doesn't read quite like Sayers unadulterated, of course, and one might notice the literary references are less subtle and the characters slightly updated (also one wonders whether knowledge of WWII changed some of the foreshadowing). The book is as much a psychological novel about Peter and Harriet (as indeed, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Holiday turned out) as it is a murder mystery. There's also some heavy-handed and rather self-conscious theorization about why it isn't frivolous to write murder mysteries (hope for a world in which things are neatly ordered)--and you do end up wondering which author these fears come from (especially as the beginnings of the draft were started as Sayers put away her murder mysteries for more religious and academic work [like Harriet's treatise on Sheridan LeFanu]). Of course, it's a pleasure to see the Wimseys again. If you expect another Gaudy Night, I think this book will disappoint you, but if you don't ask it to be what it's not, it may pleasantly surprise you.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

This mystery was a bit slow in starting, but I liked the way it worked out in the end. Bunter is particularly well-done (and independent) in this installment. I particularly liked the development of the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Her reflections about the process of novel writing were illuminating, to say the least. Ultimately, it turned on a really good fact, in my opinion, and I liked the ciphering and decoding mid-way through. Very enjoyable.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Hamlet by William Faulkner

The first part of the Snopes trilogy is really a hodge-podge. The Snopes infiltration is fairly constant of course, and they're always tricking, or making fools of everyone, even VK Ratliff. I just don't know what to do with so many incidents in the story: Mink killing Houston, Ike Snopes and the cow, and Eula Varner Snopes and her inexplicably attractive immobility. There's definitely class consciousness running through the novel (and race seems to drop away again). It's almost like 2 or 3 novellas strung together as one novel.

Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie

This mystery just didn't seem as urgent as most do. Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver were great, of course, and the idea of a Murder Hunt gone wrong is great, but there didn't seem to be any pressure to finish the case.

The Novice's Tale by Margaret Frazer

I enjoyed this mystery much more than The Apostate's Tale. This enjoyment comes, I think, partially from being at the beginning, and getting to know the characters, from the presence of a relative of Geoffrey Chaucer, and from a better-constructed mystery. Although it seemed for a moment that the reader was going to be forced to swallow a cat-out-of-the-bag solution, the clues were there all along.

Double Sin and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories features Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and two "supernatural" stories. The latter are alright, as far as they go, but I really enjoyed the more conventional detective stories better.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

I found this novel very enjoyable. It contained an enjoyable mixture of family history, genealogical digging, and modern life. I thought Ms. Groff's use of different voices and perspectives convincing in tone, although I wonder whether she might have made more effective transitions between the historical voices and the present-day narrator. I liked the idea of something strange, benevolent, and yet dangerous lurking beneath the surface of both the town's and the narrator's personal histories. The idea that Willie's mother would not tell her the name of her father was a bit forced for me. Finally, the vintage illustrations were great and the family trees were quite helpful in keeping track of everyone.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The End by Lemony Snicket

This book is a fitting end to A Series of Unfortunate Events. Ultimately things wrap up in a complicated and ambiguous, but positive way, and I would have expected nothing less from these books. This series is the smartest series for children I've seen in a long time, and I would say it works in ways similar to Jasper Fforde's fiction. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket

In this penultimate volume, all your old friends and enemies gather for hijinks at the Hotel Denouement. There's a great scene about the blindness of justice and some good thoughts about moral culpability.

The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket

The eleventh book in this series leaves the children underwater in a submarine, looking for the sugar bowl and on its way to the Hotel Denouement for a VFD meeting. They meet someone who studies fungi and are forced to consider that the world is not easily divided into villains and heroes. There's some good poetry. Finally the book hints that by its end the Baudelaire children have broken out of the cycle in which they've been trapped.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Importance of Feeling English by Leonard Tennenhouse

This book investigates how British literature in America became American literature. Tennenhouse uses a modified diaspora model to posit that Americans were very interested in producing English literature. He investigates trans-Atlantic influences (such as the captivity narrative coming from America to England, and Americans adopting and modifying British models of sentimental fiction and gothic fiction). I found this book very helpful.

Indian Summer of a Forsyte by John Galsworthy

This interlude between two massive volumes of The Forsyte Saga is really beautifully written. It made me love Irene and Old Joleyn even more than before.

The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket

I really liked this tenth book, because it showed a lot of moral sophistication. Sunny begins to grow up out of her babyhood, the Baudelaire orphans meet the third Quagmire triplet, Quigley (on whom Violet might have something like a crush), and the children resolve not to fight fire with fire--and despite abandoning their treacherous plot, still manage to survive and escape to search for the Hotel Denouement. For all of Snicket's narrative hand-wringing about how unfortunate the children are, they are really quite lucky. As a final note, Esmé Squalor gets to wear a truely splendid fire dress.

The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket

The ninth installment continues to build suspense in the series. I found the "freaks" at the carnival incredibly amusing, especially since some of Olaf's henchmen are even more freakish.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket

The eighth installment of this series takes things in a slightly different tack. Instead of just hiding from Count Olaf, the Baudelaire orphans must also hide from the police. There are a lot of shout-outs to favorite authors (Clarissa Dalloway's, Emma Bovary's, and Haruki Murakami's names are mentioned) and they discover that one of their parents might have survived. Like the Spiderwick books, I think this series will ultimately have to be judged on its merits.

March by Geraldine Brooks

I expected this book to be intriguing, but I was definitely not prepared for just how good it was. In all fairness, the protagonist was annoying at times--self-righteous, self-centered, and woefully naive, even at forty. Moreover, at times the action seemed a bit heavy-handed and over-dramatic. But in the end, it came together for me as a beautifully-conceived, beautifully-written book about redemption, love, and moving beyond disaster. I can't wait to read Ms. Brooks's other two books.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Black No More by George Schulyer

This humorous novel, in playing out the consequences of an invented process by which black people can permanently turn their skin white, addresses serious questions of race, religion, class, labor, and other cultural formations of the early twentieth century. It demonstrates very clearly the seriousness of racism, not only in itself, but also as a distraction to masses of people. I was particularly interested in the ways that racism remains a distraction when skin color becomes almost entirely uniform, in the ways that racism and religious intolerance often go hand in hand, in the eugenic and genealogical impulses of the white supremacists in the novel, in the connection between race and the conditions of labor and modernity, and in the novel's final twist. Very intriguing.