A Month of Weekend Reads:  Margery Allingham, Stanley Middleton, Domenico Starnone, and Meghan Daum

Do you ever stay in bed (or on the couch) and read a book cover-to-cover after an exhausting week?  This is especially enjoyable if your housemate, husband, or other relative agrees to bring you cups of tea at intervals.  (“I’ll make moussaka tonight,” you promise.)  

Here is a month’s worth of short weekend binge reads for the Weary and Worthy.

1. Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Late Pig.  Allingham is one of the four Queens of Crime of ’30s Golden Age Detective Fiction, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh.   In The Case of the Late Pig, published in 1937, Private Inspector Albert Campion investigates the murder of Pig Peters, an obnoxious, unscrupulous man who turns up newly dead five months after his own funeral.   Pig had many enemies, including Albert, who remembers him as a bully at school.  But who was the corpse buried five months ago?  Allingham is a good if not brilliant writer, able to spin an unputdownable plot.  I am a fan of Albert Campion, a wealthy, superficially silly, shrewd detective, not unlike Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey.

2. Stanley Middleton’s The Golden Evening.   There has been a revival of the work of Stanley Middleton, a prolific writer who won the Booker Prize in 1974, as Windmill reissues his out-of-print novels.

In The Golden Evening, the Allsop family is grieving because Ivy Allsop is dying of cancer in the hospital.   Her husband, Ernest, and their two children, Bernard and Mary, feel guilty as she lies in pain in the hospital, but life goes on for them.  Bernard, a graduate student in history, is engaged to a rich, slightly older widow, Jacqueline, who draws him into helping with the foundation of a cultural society.  (Middleton expounds on Bernard’s introduction to modern atonal music.)  Jacqueline insists on being introduced to his mother in the hospital; Bernard agonizes over the decision.  His younger sister Mary , who begins dating an older boy at school, is not sure if he likes her or if she is being used.   At one point Mr. Allsop seems to be cracking up, but somehow they cope.  A quiet, beautifully-written novel about sadness,  gradual acceptance of death, and the joys of life.

3. Domenico Starnone’s Trick.  This Italian novel, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri and illustrated by Dario Maglionico, reminds me of Elena Ferrante’s early work (which I prefer to the Neapolitan quartet).  The narrator, Daniele Mallarico, a successful artist, spends a couple of frazzled days in Naples babysitting for his four-year-old grandson, Mario, while his daughter and son-in-law go to a conference.  We feel Daniele’s boredom and exhaustion, and his desperation to  work on illustrations for a Henry James story (his publisher dislikes the ones he has submitted).  Mario demands all his attention.  And Daniele feels competitive with his grandson after Mario proves capable of copying one of Daniele’s illustrations.  Things spin out of control in a manner that is almost Jamesian Gothic when the boy plays a trick.

4. Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything:  My Journey through the New Culture Wars.  I hesitate to write about this short, snappy book about the generational divide, because it is bound to make people angry.  According to Daum, the Baby Boomers were idealistic, Gen X is tough and ironic, and the Millennials and Generation Z are rigid, fragile, and humorless.  The younger generations have been raised on phones and social media, where short messages  without documentation are passed on and believed as “truth” by the “woke.”  Technology has limited their imagination and ability to argue.  Some of Daum’s hypotheses are wild: at one point, she surmises that knowing the baby’s sex before birth has led parents away from the relatively gender-free roles of her own Gen X childhood to a revival of pink and blue, and a pink princess culture for girls which leaves them feeling like victims in need of rescue.  I was appalled ot read that Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock no longer play the college circuit because of students’ dislike of edgy humor,  while other comedians admit they simplify their jokes for the new audience. Daum writes brilliantly, and her theories are fascinating, even though I don’t always buy them.  But the book is exhausting, like watching a car wreck.  

A Neglected Writer: Stephen Dixon (1936-2019)

Stephen Dixon wrote on a typewriter and disliked electronic keyboards.

I like to mix up my reading:  classics, middlebrow, mysteries.   I like to look people in the eye and say I’m reading both The Man without Qualities and a Ngaio Marsh mystery.  It’s a double dare-ya f–k-you kind of pose.  

This weekend I plan to go a different route and revisit the experimental realist Stephen Dixon’s demanding but blessedly spare short stories.

My husband and I are reminiscing about our Dixon fandom, because  he died on November 6  of pneumonia and complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 83. We have read his books for so many years we never realized he was mortal. Dixon has never gotten much attention in the press, though he published more than 500 short stories in The Paris Review and other little magazines,  and two of his books, Frog and Interstate, were nominated for The National Book Award  He wrote 36 novels and story collections, most (perhaps all?) published by small presses.  

Many of Dixon’s short stories are published online.  Here’s the affecting first paragraph of Dixon’s short story “Crazy,” which was  published at Electric Literature in 2015.

I have a dream. In it I’m pushing my wife in a wheelchair on a narrow street in New York. Chinatown, during the lunch hour. Four- to five- story buildings, lots of small restaurants, sidewalks very crowded and people walking fast. “Excuse me, excuse me,” I say to people in front of us. “Better watch out. I don’t want to run in to you.” I’ve no idea where I’m going. I’m just pushing. My wife sits silently, looking straight ahead.

It’s a brilliant story.  I don’t like all of his work equally–but I do like it.  I regret that our public library has none of his books.  (They have in the past.  They apparently discarded them.)

Ave atque vale, Stephen.  And may your work be read.

It’s Dark Outside! Reveries on November Reading

November isn’t the coziest of months.  Jo in Little Women says, “That’s the reason I was born in it.”  

The best way to survive the tenebrous days of November is to sit in a very clean house with a reasonably good book. After you vacuum and dust, you can admire the spotless carpet and the scratched but now polished tables.  And then you can draw the drapes for ultra-coziness, though if they are green velvet or scarlet moreen, you may feel like a tense Scarlett O’Hara  (she must make a dress out of velvet curtains) or Jane Eyre concealed behind the curtains in the windowseat, hiding from her intimidating cousin.

Jane Eyre (Folio Society edition)

Whenever I think of Scarlett O’Hara, I remember my mother, whom I still miss, though I no longer talk to her ghost.  Gone with the Wind was her favorite book, though my once favorite Jane Eyre made little impression on herI don’t much like Gone with the Wind,  which I find poorly-written; she preferred Scarlett to Jane as a character. Of course, my friends and I wanted to marry Mr. Rochester!   (These days, I think Monsieur Paul in Villette might make a better husband.)

The three books above make ideal November reading, but I recently finished another Novemberish novel, Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Trojan Brothers, published in 1944.  The neglected Pamela Hansford Johnson, a popular, well-respected novelist of the 20th century, wrote 27 novels, most realistic and psychological, though some of them are brilliant satires.  She also wrote criticism and autobiography.

The Trojan Brothers is a difficult novel to enjoy. I have seldom felt more edgy while reading a bone-chilling book. Set in the 1920s, it is a fictional study of aberrant psychology.  The hero, Sid Nichols, lives at such a pitch of hysteria that we can feel it tingling on our skin.  

 Sid and his friend Benny are successful comedians:  they play two halves of a talking horse in a popular stage act (Johnson actually makes this act sound enchanting ). Sid, the hind end, is known for making hilarious remarks to the audience.  When he spots Betty Todd, the upper-class cousin who snubbed him in childhood, he confronts her from the stage by subtly insulting her.  (No one else would understand the insults.) Afterwards, she comes backstage with her husband to rebuke and insult Sid.  And yet he masochistically wants to see her again.

How this leads to a love affair is mysterious.  Sid is plain and has ginger hair and freckles, while  beautiful Betty is “like a pierrot doll, very handsome, haughtily amused.” Betty is a social climber, disliked by most people:  she invites famous people to parties, and Sid is her connection to the theater.   As Sid smashes his successful career, and also that of his partner, Benny, in his pursuit of Betty, we realize he is losing his mind.  And it gets worse…  

This well-written novel is interesting, but far from her best.  She has analyzed unrequited love in other novels, and, though painful to read, The Last Resort and The Philistines do a better job.  The Trojan Brothers is so extreme.

How does one cope with November?  By reading cheerful or gloomy books?  

I hope to move on to a cheerful book after The Trojan Brothers.

A Glorious Read: Dickens’s “Dombey and Son”

An illustration in “Dombey and Son.”

I went to London (primarily) to visit the Charles Dickens Museum.  I came home (primarily) to reread Dickens.  Last month I enjoyed  Great Expectations,  but I have been spellbound by the great Dombey and Son (all 878 pages). 

Many years ago, a friend and I read Dickens and agreed that Dombey and Son was “not bad.”  I loved it and I suspect he did, too, but we tried to be nonchalant:  we never knew when someone would take us down for liking the wrong book.  (This was graduate school.)

My favorite Dickens is Bleak House, with its perfect structure and rich language,  but Dombey and Son is perfect in a different way. The plot may ramble, but the prose is exuberant and vibrant, and every character, even the mere caricatures, are colorful.   I find even the most outrageous comic scenes believable.

One of my favorite characters  is Mr. Toots, a foolish young man who writes letters to himself from famous people and keeps saying to Florence Dombey, his crush, “it’s of no consequence.” I am also enthralled by Mrs. Skewton, the lively, flirtatious elderly woman who dresses in the latest fashion–much too young for her–and becomes Mr. Dombey’s second mother-in-law.

Mr. Toots (right) confides in Captain Cuttle.

H. W. Garrod, who wrote the entertaining introduction to the Oxford Illustrated edition, is not enthusiastic about Dombey and Son.  He finds several characters unbelieveable, and asserts that the book  goes downhill after the death of little Paul.  He writes, “Of the death of little Paul, Anna Marsh-Caldwell (but who now remembers her novels?) said, without much exaggeration, that it threw a whole nation into mourning.”   But then, according to Garrod,  Dickens’s  interest in new characters and subplots takea him away from the original plan of the book.

Oh, well, plans?  It’s Dickens.    

I should say a little about the Dombeys.   Mr. Dombey, proprietor of Dombey and Son, is so  ecstatic to have a son and heir that he does not care about his wife’s death in childbirth.  He ignores his daughter Florence, no use to him because she is a girl; she brings up Paul, with the help of Susan Nipper, her sharp-tongued nurse.  And then they are sent to Brighton to live in Mrs. Pipchin’s strange, surreal, bleak boarding house for children, recommended by Miss Tox,  a friend of Mr. Dombey’s sister.  The sickly Paul dies after being sent, at age 6,  to the school next-door, which force-feeds the classics.  (Mr. Toots, who is grown-up, is apparently doing post-graduate work there.)

And then there’s the language.  Dickens is a master of rhetoric, and an incipient modernist, or post-modernist. Like Lucy Ellman, whose novel Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he makes good use of anaphora, the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive clauses or phrases.  Ellman keeps repeating “the fact that,” and Dickens manages to do three pages of the repetition of “of.”

It was a vision of long roads, that stretched away to an horizon, always receding and never gained; of ill-paved towns, up hill and down, where faces came to dark doors and ill-glazed windows, and where rows of mudbespattered cows and oxen were tied up for sale in the long narrow streets, butting and lowing, and receiving blows on their blunt heads from bludgeons that might have beaten them in; of bridges, crosses, churches, postyards, new horses being put in against their wills, and the horses of the last stage reeking, panting, and laying their drooping heads together dolefully at stable doors; of little cemeteries with black crosses settled sideways in the graves, and withered wreaths upon them dropping away; again of long, long roads, dragging themselves out, uphill and down, to the treacherous horizon.

Pretty good, huh?

Dombey and Son is a glorious read!

Buttoned-up: Playing Monopoly with Stanley Middleton

One of my favorite books by Stanley Middleton.

Stanley Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for his novel Holiday.  Nonetheless, his books are not widely-acclaimed in the U.S.  In 1989, a New York Times reviewer called his novel Entry into Jerusalem “buttoned-up.”  In 1992 Kirkus Reviews called his novel Changes and Chances “Vintage workaday Middleton, neither surprising nor spectacular, but carefully built and realized.” 

A couple of years ago, I found a copy of Middleton’s Holiday  in London and wondered, Why haven’t I heard of him before? I went on to read Middleton’s superb Valley of Decision (which I blogged about here) and An After-Dinner’s Sleep (here).  And I found these two novels both “surprising [and] spectacular.”

I recently read an excellent essay in the TLS on Middleton, which centers on several of his books recently reissued by Windmill and a book of his poetry.  And so I went online to check prices for these and several of his out-of-print books.

At Amazon, the cheapest copy of a hardcover of Cold Gradations (1972) is $546.68.  You can get a better deal at Abebooks, where the cheapest price is $126.61.  I don’t know what makes this book so expensive, but am relieved that quite a few of his other books go for $5 (a price that interests me) or $10 (too high for me, but reasonable). 

  What makes Cold Gradations so expensive?

I don’t understand bookselling.  Maybe they played Monopoly for bankruptcy.

I will be looking for a cheap copy of Cold Gradations, so the booksellers may want to drop the price.