Confusingly Similar Titles: “Death of My Aunt” and “The Murder of My Aunt”

I was browsing at a foundering used bookstore when I came across two mysteries by C. H. B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt and Death of His Uncle, in scruffy 1980s Perennial paperbacks.  The bookstore owner, who favored a hard sell and attached the word “classic” to every book I scrutinized,  claimed they were crime “classics.”  Whether true or not,  I was intrigued by the clever titles, and once home stacked them in the place of honor on the bedside table.  That night I perused a few (slightly foxed) pages of  Death of My Aunt and put it aside.  Ditto with Death of His Uncle

 Could books with such whimsical titles actually be dull?

Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood, I thought cheerily the next morning.  I was sure I would read them someday.  And indeed, I thought someday had come when I snapped up a  British Library edition of The Murder of My Aunt.

The Murder of My Aunt is a a mildly entertaining mystery – but a third of the way through I realized that it was not Kitchin’s aunt  mystery at all – it was by Richard Hull! Kitchin’s book is called Death of My Aunt.

I felt cross. “How dare they screw around with titles, and wasn’t this some kind of plagiarism?” (though perhaps that doesn’t apply to titles).  Kitchin’s aunt book was published in 1929, and Hull’s followed in 1934.

Feeling cheated, I consoled myself with the prospect of reading  Kitchin’s aunt book and comparing it to Hull’s.

But Death of My Aunt has vanished.  Perhaps I donated it to the library.

So here I am, with my cup of tea, ready to read Kitchin’s Death of His Uncle instead.   Book open, pages ready…  and the first sentence is brilliant.  “Had it not been for my inability to mash potatoes on Thursday, June 10th, I think it quite possible that I might never have embarked on this third case of mine.”

Bur there is further exasperation.  This aged paperback of  Death of His Uncle is too tightly bound: I can barely read the words near the center of the book.  I’ve tried pummeling it, folding back the cover, but nothing works.

I’m ready to read C.H.B. Kitchin – and now this! 

Which is better? His aunt book or his uncle book?

I hope Kitchin is worth reading. He also wrote literary fiction: he was a close friend of L. P. Hartley.

Reluctant Roommates: Angela Lambert’s “A Rather English Marriage”

I love 20th-century culture – especially novels. My latest discovery is A Rather English Marriage, by Angela Lambert (1940-2007), an English writer whose clever, lively novels unfold with precision and simplicity. 

Old age and obligatory friendship are her themes here, as she depicts an awkward friendship between two old men, Roy, a retired milkman, and Reggie Conynhame-Jervis, a former RAF pilot, whose wives die on the same day at the same hospital.  At the prompting of the vicar and a social worker, the men become roommates. Depressed Roy moves in with Reggie, a blustering, pompous, well-to-do man who likes to be addressed as Squadron Leader and  tell rambling stories about his glory days during World War II. 

 These aged roommates are have vastly different attitudes toward marriage.  Roy grieves incessantly for his wife, who was also his best friend.  Reggie, who barely noticed his wife, and did not have sex with her for decades, does not miss her at all, though he is miffed to discover that she had made a fortune on the stock exchange without telling him.

 And then there is the lack of boundaries regarding Reggie’s treatment of Roy. Reggie regards Roy as an unpaid servant, but Roy continues to do the housework to keep busy.  One night he agrees to serve dinner to Reggie and his date, a relatively young woman in her fifties (20 years younger than Reggie).  Roy is angry when Reggie and his Liz call him Southgate, as if he is the butler.

The characters of these two men of different classes illustrate their antithetical principles and philosophies. Roy is grounded in duty to his family, preoccupied with a ne’er-do well-son who is in prison for bigamy, and with his rowdy grandchildren, whose listless mother is not raising them well. For the sake of his grandchildren, Roy works to maintain the relationship. On the other hand, the boastful Reggie has no friends except those he pays for, like the pricey prostitute he visits in London, and Liz, a chic shop owner who goes out with him in case she goes broke and needs to marry money.  

And yet when circumstances change, the two old men do become friends.  It is, after all, when disaster happens that one finds out who one’s real friends are.

This book was a delight to read.  It is out-of-print, but is available as an e-book.  Does anyone recommend any other books by Lambert? 

 Reading in Public and Elsewhere: The Indie Bookstore Trend

“Where are all the independent bookstores?”  I wondered every time I read in a glossy magazine about the new independent bookstore trend.   

 Ten years after the rest of the world – a typical time lag for a trend to reach the midwest – independent bookstores are springing up on the landscape.  There is Dog-Eared Books in Ames, Iowa, a university town that, tragically and improbably, lacked an independent bookstore for 15 years after Big Table Books, a co-op bookstore, closed in 2006.  Dog-Eared Books, which opened in 2021, specializes in new books, with a small selection of used books.  It also has a coffee bar and a dog.

I was thrilled and intrigued to learn that another new indie bookstore has arrived on the scene.  Reading in Public opened this month in a sleek, streamlined new building in Valley Junction in West Des Moines, Iowa.

“Read books and be kind to people” is the Reading in Public motto.  I have it on a bookmark.

Walk into  the chic urban space and the polite bibliophiles step back and part like the Red Sea.  There were no walking crashes, just a couple of narrow squeeze-bys, when three or four people tried confusedly to pass in different directions. (The store was crowded.)

The owner, Linzi Murray, a graphic designer who moved back to Des Moines from New York to start the bookstore, has a zealous philosophy of bookselling.  She told a local newspaper, “For me, curation is my No. 1 priority. It’s [about] getting the books in front of the people that may never find them because you never know what book is going to meet the person at the right time and what impact it could have.” 

I am impressed by the collection of books.  A  carefully-curated display on top of low shelves enticed me to examine books I had not heard of. And you can sit on comfortable stools in front of these shelves, so you can see the books at eye-level.

Of course, I was mesmerized by the floor-to-ceiling shelves.  There were so many books I wanted.  Should I buy Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch, I wondered. Or Geraldine Brooks’s Horse, which I was unable to find before Christmas?  I also considered a Mexican novel by a writer I had never heard of.  

One customer clutched a copy of Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer-winning The Night Watchman. (“Good choice,” I almost said.)  Another browser intently perused anthologies of short stories.  A couple waited at the coffee bar while the barista fussed over the brand-new espresso machine. 

My one complaint:  I wish Reading in Public and Dog-Eared Books had better backlists.

But these booksellers probably know their audience. People do like to keep up with the latest books.  

I’ll be back.

 And, let’s face it, a good backlist isn’t built in a day!

Dickens’s Darkest Novel, “Barnaby Rudge”

Dickens’s dark historical novel, Barnaby Rudge, is not necessarily for Dickens fans.  It is not that Dickens isn’t  dark:  there are some very dark scenes in Our Mutual Friend, which begins with a man and his daughter rowing on the Thames in search of a corpse.  Dickens’ wit and humor usually offset the darkness, but the dark iniquity is almost unremitting in Barnaby Rudge

In this tense, fast-paced novel, anti-Catholic feeling culminates in the Gordon Riots of 1780, the result of a movement led by the Scottish aristocrat, George Gordon. On a nine-day spree from June 2-10, rioters terrorized London, looting, committing murders and arson.  Terrified Londoners posted NO POPERY signs on their doors to avert the looters.

In an ingenious, if slightly rambling buildup, Dickens subtly sets up the religious conflict by depicting its role in a forbidden love affair.  Religion is an obstacle between two young lovers, Emma Haredale, a Catholic, and Edward Chester, a Protestant, who want to marry.  Emma’s uncle, Sir Geoffrey Haredale, and Edward’s manipulative father, Sir John Chesterly, veto the relationship – Sir John, who needs his son to marry money so he himself can live comfortably, uses the religion card to persuade Sir Geoffrey to help squelch the affair.  The two men are enemies – but Sir Geoffrey is spellbound – as is everyone else – by Sir John’s arguments.

We hoped for a bright note when, on the opening pages, we visited the Maypole, a seemingly jolly Dickensian inn located 12 miles from London.  The innkeeper, John Willett, “a burly, large-headed man with a fat face,” and his son, Joe, “a broad-shouldered strapping young man of twenty,” are humorous, kindly folk, who wish the two thwarted lovers well – Emma is their neighbor.  And Joe has encountered obstacles in romance himself:  he is in love with a locksmith’s daughter, the alluring Dolly, who is beautiful and flirtatious, but not ready to settle down.  Even the Maypole is not a haven for rural wits or starstruck lovers;  it attracts a menacing stranger, who turns out to be a highwayman and murderer.  

What, you may ask, of the titular character, Barnaby Rudd, who is the idiot son of Mary Rudd?  For the first third of the novel, he is a minor character. He lives a carefree life, partly because he forgets everything that happens, and he wins everyone’s affections with his sweetness and generosity.  He has a pet talking crow named Grip, and takes the neighbors’ dogs for long runs in the woods.  But Mary, terrified when her husband, a murderer, tracks her down and shakes her down for money, moves twice to get away and to protect Barnaby.

But no mother can protect her son forever. The second time they run away from Mary’s husband, she and Barnaby travel to London during the riots.   And poor Barnaby is victimized by the mob: as a joke he is  lured by Hugh, one of the working-class leaders, to join them.  Barnaby fights by Hugh’s side and fantasizes  that he is a hero fighting injustice.  To do him justice, Hugh does take care of Barnaby. But Barnaby wants to talk to his mother and can’t quite understand why she isn’t there.  It is a heartbreaking situation. 

It is so suspenseful and edgy that I felt as overwhelmed as I did reading  the Russian writer Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. These two books are not otherwise comparable, but both depict the depths of human suffering.   Because I love the character Barnaby, and hoped he would get out alive -though it seemed unlikely at one point – I read to the end.  

Dickens will break your heart, but this is an underrated novel.

Downtown: Petula Clark and the Music of the Traffic

“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely/ you can always go/ Downtown.” – Petula Clark,Downtown

 If I had to define myself to the bureaucracy of some dystopian society,  I would crib from Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things (de rerum natura), and scribble epicurean musings on atoms.  But if I were asked to define myself in simple terms, I would  say, “I’m a Downtown Woman.”

The thing about downtown:  it shaped and defined me.  It shaped the lives of several generations of women.  Downtown was the snappy place where we idled after work, browsed in record shops, borrowed Angela Thirkell’s books from the library, bought nylons and pastel cotton sweaters on sale, saw foreign films with boyfriends, rendezvoused at coffee shops, bought too many books at used bookstores, stocked up on sketchbooks, and considered the merits of tacky cat jewelry.  One of the metal cats broke off the wire of an earring, and the polymer clay cat bracelet snapped in two.  A friend said, “You don’t want everything to scream cats.”  (Well, but why not?)   We walked from shop to shop,  enjoying the fresh air and watching the people.  There was weather.  It wasn’t like the malls.

 One of the  great pop songs of the 1960s is Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” At the time, I was too hip and insecure to admit I was a Petula Clark fan, but I sang along to “Downtown” on the radio. And I still bounce a bit when I hear it:  “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city/ Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”

Downtown promises so much. You might walk into that diner or bar and meet the man or woman of your dreams – or at the very least, a friend you haven’t seen in years.  You might find the perfect-fitting faded jeans at the vintage clothing store that reeks of Patchouli oil, where supposedly famous actors and rock stars have shopped.  You might consult the psychic above the vintage clothing store and communicate with your best friend who died young, the one person you really miss and want to talk to.   Downtown is a fairy tale where dreams might (though probably won’t) come true.  And after a day at the office, everybody needs to dream.

I may have owned a single of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” I did buy a lot of singles – or 45’s, as they were also called – back in my Vinyl days.  I bought many Beatles singles: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with “Penny Lane” on the flip side – and were these ever recorded on any of their albums? There were booths in the record stores, where we could listen to a record before we bought it.  The owners were tolerant, happy to rip the plastic off the albums for us. We tried not to scratch the records.  If we bought a scratched record, we could return it.

“Downtown,” written by Tony Hatch, is an energetic ode to the downtown  of the 20th century.  In the context of 20th-century women’s pop and rock music, Petula Clark’s performance was important.  Because where were all the women rockers and pop singers of the mid-20th century?  There were Janis Joplin, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell – and does that sum it up?  Please fill in the blanks…  We listened mainly to men.

Sadly, Petula Clark is forgotten.  According to Wikipedia (sorry, I can’t tell if this source is valid), “Petulia Clark became the first UK female artist to have a US No. 1 hit during the rock and roll era and the second in the annals of US charted music.”  Doesn’t that deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha would put it?  Even though “Downtown” is the only Clark song I know, I do feel it is evocative of women’s lives.

It could, in fact, have been the soundtrack of our lives.  It captures a particular time and space where many of us shopped and also hung out with friends and lovers.  Lost to urban sprawl and the passage of time, downtown is a space we cannot recover.

Women in Exile: “Dark Earth,” by Rebecca Stott

There is nothing better than getting lost in a book. And so I was thrilled to discover Rebecca Stott’s slender, gracefully-written novel, Dark Earth, the compelling story of two Saxon sisters struggling to survive in post-Roman Britain in 500 A.D.  

In this spellbinding novel, Stott focuses on the plight of women in the Dark Ages.  Two sisters, twenty-one-year-old Isla and 17-year-old Blue, have lived with their father peacefully on an island for five years.  The camp elders banished their father, a Great Smith, after raiders torched the camp, scapegoating him for attracting the “bad spirits” by forging “fire-tongued” swords. The sisters, traumatized by the loss of their mother in the raid and their exile, realize that knowledge and skill are not valued – in fact, knowledge is dangerous for both men and women.

Despite the isolation, there  are benefits to life on an island.  Gender roles become fluid:  Isla assists their father at the forge – though it is illegal for women to enter a forge – and it must be kept secret from the men who deliver supplies to the island. But Isla worries about Blue, who has the ability to see the future – a dangerous trait – and does not try to hide it.  She is also a skilled healer with an encyclopedic knowledge of herbs.  Blue doesn’t know how to keep a low profile.

In the Dark Ages, women were in peril without male protection.  When their father dies, the sisters cannot let anyone know.  Isla finishes the sword he was making for  his patron, Lord Osric, and decides she and Blue will deliver it in person. Needless to say, the meeting does not go well.  They barely escape with their lives.

With the help of a friend, they escape to the ruins of Londinium, a mile-wide city occupied by the Romans and abandoned around 410 A.D.  A secret society of women now inhabits a corner of the city.  The utopian society instantly enthralls Blue, but Isla, who was poisoned (probably with nightshade) by Lord Osric’s son, is ill for weeks, and when she recovers she does not trust anyone. They ask her to share her knowledge of the forge, but she denies that she is a blacksmith.  Only gradually does she understand that these women share their skills.

The search for haven, or utopia, is a recurring theme. The sisters briefly lived in peace on an island, then in a utopian society of women in Londinium. But Londinium, too, is in peril, for environmental and political reasons:  the city is sinking, and Lord Osric’s people are searching for Isla and Blue. 

This entertaining novel is as well-plotted as it is beautifully- written  Excellent weekend reading!

Reading by Whim: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader

In an essay at the TLS, Ian Sansom gently mocks bookish New Year’s resolutions. Some readers bustle pompously, declaring it the Year of Proust – and perhaps getting a book out of it.  But Sansom’s plans to devote the year to Dickens, Henry James, or Simenon always fail.  By February, he is back to reading what he likes when he likes, “in as disorganized and haphazard fashion as always.”

I belong to the club of reading by whim – but I embrace it.  On New Year’s Eve, I, too, make grandiose plans, then abandon them in favor of independent reading.  I might declare it a year of reading Jane Austen – which is every year – or The Year of Finishing Proust – because I got stuck halfway through the fourth volume.  But then I pounce on Nobel Prize winner Anatole France’s Penguin Island, so smart and witty that all else must be put on hold.

Our hectic over-planning in modern life may be due to the ravages of the internet.   In the days of dial-up, online book groups throve but had a greater air of spontaneity.  We voted every month on the book we wanted to read, rather than waiting for someone to choose it for us. Nowadays, at blogs, vlogs, and other social media, there are countless organized reading events, which seem popular, if lonely.  There’s nothing that dashes hopes of intelligent conversation like a Twitter discussion of War and Peace. 

What is wrong with reading on one’s own, according to whim or mood? Why must everything be planned or directed?  Does it matter if I read Annie Ernaux this month or next year?  Does Gogol have to be on my reading calendar – say, for July 9 – or can I read him whenever?  And will I get my knuckles rapped if I take a day off to read a Mrs. Pollifax mystery?  (Yes, probably.)

In a house full of books, it is unnecessary to make reading plans.

A Memoir of a Mother: “A Woman’s Story,” by Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux, the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize, is famous for her lucid autobiographical writings. The boundaries between her autofiction and memoirs blur and overlap, so one is not sure which is which.  In her novella, Simple Passion, the story of an obsessive love affair based on her own obsessive love affair, she explains that what she is not quite writing a novel, but not a memoir either.   That is true of much of her work.
In her graceful memoir, A Woman’s Story, Ernaux tells the story of her mother. Her spare style underscores her painful examination of their relationship.  She begins with the bare fact of her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease.  “My mother died on Monday 7 April in the old people’s home attached to the hospital at Pontoise, where I had installed her two years previously.”  Ernaux had  seen her mother’s deterioration and expected her death, but is still disturbed and depressed.

Her mother was the only important woman in her life, Ernaux says. Devastated by her loss,  she is haunted by the knowledge that her mother will “never be alive anywhere in the world again.” Three weeks after the funeral, she is able to write the words, “My mother died,” knowing she is beginning a book. Through her research and musings on the past, she is able to  collect  pieces of the puzzle of her mother’s history. 

The book is part memoir, part sociology. Ernaux traces her grandparents’ history – her grandfather was a carter, her grandmother did home-weaving – and then turns to her mother, a smart, religious woman who was determined to be respected and not get pregnant before marriage.  She worked in a margarine factory, then in a rope factory, where she met her husband.  She was ambitious:  she persuaded her husband to take out a loan so they could buy a grocery store and cafe.  She ran the business.

As a child, Ernaux adored her mother, though she would slap Annie if she interrupted her while serving a customer.  At home, her mother cherished her and organized her education at a convent school. She saw that Annie went to college. 

Through her mother’s machinations, Ernaux rose into the middle class.  Ironically, her mother was uncomfortable when she briefly lived with Annie and her husband, because of their education:  they listened to classical music and read the latest books.  Later, she lived with her daughter again after Annie’s divorce, but she descended into Alzheimer’s and had to live in a nursing home.

Ernaux celebrates the reality of her mother’s life, describing her struggles and successes. There is no sentimentality in Ernaux’s spare prose, and the mother-daughter relationship is evocative because of her honesty.

A short, perfect, very sad read.

The Frosh Capers: An Orange in My Shakespeare Class

Winter had never been so cold.

Three mornings a week, I heaved The Pelican Complete Shakespeare into a knapsack, along with spiral notebooks, Bic pens, and a highlighter.  I trudged through the snow, wearing layers of turtlenecks, long underwear, lined jeans, and a parka that should have kept me warm but didn’t.  Huddled in our coats, we sat in overheated classrooms, coughing and spreading germs.  And we could have stayed home: after half a semester the prof was still lecturing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Silent on principle, I sat in the back and read A Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night,  and Henry IV, Part I – all on the syllabus, but who knew whether we would get to them? The cigarette smoke-wreathed academic god’s declamation on his favorite comedy had gone on for two months.  I had  read the play once at home, three times in class, and had seen a brilliant theater department production, where the fairies dressed as gypsies and perched on swings. 

The  professor, whom I called  Mr. R. because I did not understand that he should be called Dr. R., was gruff, a little scary, and a chain-smoker.  The grad student smokers conspired to sit in  front and laugh at his jokes.  There was a cloud of smoke down there.

Mr./Dr. R. was impressed by a blonde in the front row.  “Another one of those awful papers,” he’d joke as he handed back her latest masterpiece.  The rest of us could but hope he had not paid close attention to our ramblings in “Titania As Feminist Icon.”

Personally, I would have been mortified to exchange repartee with him. We frosh left the talking to the graduate students. And then one day I was late, and as I was unloading my gear, an orange bounced out of my knapsack and rolled down the aisle. 

Dr. R put his cigarette down on the chalk ledge. He approached the orange. He looked as though he had never seen one. “What is this?” 

I hated to be the girl who had rolled an orange down the aisle, and almost said, “Please, sir.” But I said,  “It’s like an apple – only it’s an orange.”  

I was referring, with frosh cryptic wit, to the days when people brought apples for the teacher.  Perhaps he heard me.  Perhaps he did not.  He put the orange on his desk. 

He continued to lecture on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Media Is the Message: “White Noise ” & “Magpie Murders”

Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year.  We are bombarded with reviews, blurbs, blogs, friends’ recommendations, and bookstore shelf talkers.  Some simply badger us until we have bought the damned book, others ruin it by a hatchet job.  

Sifting through media that have different agendas is increasingly complex.  As Marshall McLuhan once asserted, “The media is the message.”

Here are two recommendations from my recent reading. Both books have been adapted as films.

A  MOVIE TIE-IN CLASSICDon DeLillo’s White Noise, a post-modern classic, published in 1985,  centers on the fear of death and the manipulation of the media.

 It begins with a dystopian tragedy.  When a chemical explosion causes a toxic airborne event, the narrator, Jack Gladney, a college professor, ignores the news, though he and his family are addicted to disasters on TV news.  He assures his wife. Babette, and their children that such disasters do not affect middle-class college towns:  they plague only trailer parks and poor neighborhoods. 

But the toxic event is real, and eventually the Gladneys have to evacuate to a shelter. Jack is surprised to learn that people in charge know little about the chemicals. They are employees of a company that simulates disasters and their consquences.

Jack is always once removed from reality.  At the college where hr teaches, he specializes in Hitler Studies, a field he invented so he could be the expert.  Much of the class is devoted to Hitler’s manipulation of the media:  they watch film footage of Hitler’s speeches and analyze the crowd’s zealous reactions.   One of Jack’s colleagues, an Elvis Studies maven, begs Jack to give his field legitimacy:  the two co-teach a class one day, presenting parallel facts about the destructive lives of Hitler and Elvis, who both drove crowds mad.

DeLillo cleverly interweaves the ramifications of media studies with the narrative. One can see the influence of Marshall McLuhan and other mid-20th-century philosophers and sociologists.  McLuhan, who is best-remembered for the quote, “The media is the message,” believed the media was more important than its content.

DeLillo also explores issues that shape, for better or worse, our society.  Jack and Babette’s blended family, with its multiple divorces and parents scattered around the globe, is logistically challenging,  though everyone is surfacely normal, and they do work together as a unit. But the lovely Babette is forgetful because of some mysterious pills – perhaps she is a drug addict – as her daughter, Denise, surmises when she discovers an empty pill bottle in the trash. Denise and Jack are horrified to learn that nobody, not even the doctor, can identify these pills. Jack continues to investigate.

 Life is darker after the toxic airborne event, but the sunsets are more beautiful In this novel, the family is central, and the characterizations are brilliant, but even the rearrangement of supermarket shelves can have hidden meaning.

Nothing is as it seems.

AN ADDICTIVE MYSTERY.  Everybody is reading Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, unless they discovered it in 2017 when it was first published.  A recent “Masterpiece” adaptation, also written by Anthony Horowitz,  inspired me to pick up this page-turner. 

The structure of this old-fashioned mystery is brilliantly complex.  I give this book full points for plot and structure. An editor, Susan Ryland, must search for the missing pages of the latest mystery by their best-selling author, Alan Conway, who committed suicide a few days after turning in the manuscript.  But before she can solve the mystery, we get to read Conway’s novel, Magpie Murders, the ninth in his Atticus Pünd series.  There are many twists and turns, and references to Agatha Christie.  And then we switch to the section about Susan, who, though not as brilliant as Atticus Pünd – she is not a detective – is driven by her desire to save the publishing company through a labyrinth of clues and an uexpected crime. Anagrams play a large part in solving the mystery.

Do watch the “Masterpiece” series!

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