Sometimes There’s a Reason: Dropping Dumas & Enchanted by Lord Berners

No, I have too many books!

Every year, my favorite bloggers pipe up: “We plan to read more books from our own shelves.” What an enticing idea! I have a LOT of dusty books, on a LOT of shelves, and I’d love to get rid of the bookcases in the dining room, where the incongruous shelving of the Brownings beside Lilian Jackson Braun lowers the level of conversation.

My better-organized fellows have a certain je ne sais quoi. They emanate a charming positivity, a Pollyanna-ish spirit that can guide them through the slog of Dumas and the unvarying cleverness of Georgette Heyer. They have spreadsheets. It is humbling. But who knows? Perhaps they, too, have bookcases in the dining room.

Mind you, I recently lost my Dumas book after enjoying 300 pages of it. And I’ve forgotten the title! Well, in my defense, the title was French. Easy French, but French. La Sanfelice, or The Vicomte de Bragelonne, I think. Perhaps I could open ANY Dumas book at page 300 and enjoy it.

Oh, well, the Dumas book did make it off the shelf.

I had better luck with Lord Berners’s Collected Tales and Fantasies. I stared at it gloomily, and thought, Well, let’s try it. And I was enchanted by this strange collection of macabre, witty tales and novellas. Lord Berners (1883-1950) was known for eccentricity as a writer, composer, and painter. He moved in the set of the Sitwells. He also knew Nancy Mitford, who based her character Lord Merlin on him.

Two of the stories in this collection feature animals with special powers. In his charming novella, The Camel, a camel rings the doorbell at the vicarage one snowy day. The Reverend is terrified, but his wife Antonia leads the camel to the barn: she rode camels when she was a missionary in the East. And soon she and the camel have a special bond, as she rides him around the village, where he does not cause as much chaos as you might think, except for one man’s worry that he is hallucinating. The camel is so fond of Antonia that every time she makes a wish, he grants it. She wishes she had a mink coat like a posh neighbor’s, and it shows up at the vicarage. Yes, the camel steals for her! Everyone is quite puzzled.

In “Mister Pidger,” Millicent Denham surreptitiously brings her lapdog Mister Pidger on a visit to Uncle Wilfred Davenant. Uncle Wilfrid has disinherited one couple who brought a dog to the house, so Millicent’s husband Walter rightly worries they will be disinherited because of Mister Pidger. Millicent plans to hide Mister Pidger in her bedroom, but anyway who wouldn’t adore this charming lapdog? I won’t give away the plot, but you will wonder: IS Mister Pidger psychic?

All the stories are imaginative and very strange: in “The Romance of a Nose,” Cleopatra has plastic surgery. In “Percy Wallingford,” the perfect man’s perfect life abruptly falls apart; are the causes supernatural?

I am not at all sure the genre here is fantasy, but I suppose “fantasies” is accurate.

Does Criticism Quell the Joy of Reading?

I never wanted to be an academic. I enjoyed reading, but You Know, I Had a Life. I rarely studied at the library (there were no windows), and avoided the student snuggery where the more serious plugged away. I do not mean to suggest they were grinds–they were nice people–but it was much more comfortable and less distracting to work at home. And, honestly, I put my work aside by six or seven at the latest, and curled up to read novels: the Lucia books, Margaret Drabble, Larry Woiwode, or Trollope. Novels were my secret vice. I avoided mentioning them, because (a) my fellow students probably did not read novels, and (b) they would have been condescending. (An 18th-century hold-over about novels?)

I think I took a class from him.

I preferred reading novels to criticism, and good academic jobs were scarce. If you finished a Ph.D., you might become a Visiting Lecturer, also known as a gypsy scholar, depending on your point-of-view, or your self-presentation. To be a gypsy scholar meant spending one year here, two years there, never having a stable job or being able to buy a house. One friend was so miserable she left to go into the business sector. God knows what she did all day, but at night she read novels.

Of course we all loved to read, but were pleased that we never had to do literary criticism again, thank God. When I want to read criticism, I read the TLS or The New York Review of Books. Let those who love scholarship be scholars. Let the rest of us read novels and occasionally consult the scholars’ work.

Some academic writers still do analyze books from a common reader’s point of view, though. AT PUBLIC BOOKS, Matthew Rubery champions the joy of reading in his essay, “Stop Reading like a Critic.” Here are the first two paragraphs.

Take a moment to think about your favorite book. Now ask yourself: Would you be willing to reveal your thoughts to other readers? Most people wouldn’t think twice about sharing their enthusiasms. But literature professors are not most people. One of the first lessons you learn in grad school is to hide your personal taste or risk being shamed for liking the wrong sorts of things. Scholars have been conditioned to respond to talk of likes and dislikes with embarrassment, if not outright contempt. The facade of critical detachment may be on the way out, however. Some academics—most prominently, Rita Felski and Andrew Miller, each with a new book on the subject—invite their colleagues to fess up to the feelings they have for what they study, interpret, and even—dare I say it—love.

For Felski, examining this love is just as important as focusing on how “useful” a novel is, or whether a body of work serves a particular politics. More importantly, talking about attachments allows readers to admit to all the works they adore, breaking down barriers between what is “critically” and “commercially” good. It is time, urges Felski, to talk about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir the same way we talk about Beyoncé and the Boss.

This next article isn’t quite on the same topic, but I do recommend it: “Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers” by Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic. Here are the first two paragraphs.

They can be identified by their independent-bookstore tote bags, their “Book Lover” mugs, or—most reliably—by the bound, printed stacks of paper they flip through on their lap. They are, for lack of a more specific term, readers.

Joining their tribe seems simple enough: Get a book, read it, and voilà! You’re a reader—no tote bag necessary. But behind that simple process is a question of motivation—of why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t. That why is consequential—leisure reading has been linked to a range of good academic and professional outcomes—as well as difficult to fully explain. But a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.

Does criticism interfere with the joy of reading? I’d love to hear your opinion. Perhaps you are common readers, but your attitude toward criticism might be very different from mine.

I Am Trying to Reconnect…with Mrs. Oliphant!

Mrs. Oliphant, an underrated Victorian writer

Although we are not housebound, we have new ice and snow on top of the old snow. It is very slippery, my husband says. He searched the closets for the Yaktrax, special cleats you attach to the soles of your shoes. (The mailmen and mailwomen wear them.) One does not slip on Yaktrax, but the farthest I’ve ever managed to walk in them is three blocks.

“No, don’t bother,” I said listlessly.

I have been lethargic lately. Well, it is February. Instead of contentment, or at least the ability to fake it, I am utterly drained by winter. And my reading has not made me happy: I have perused several unsatisfying third-rate 19th-century novels.

The difficulty began when I decided to read books from the old TBR list. Very Goodreads-ish plan, yes? But actually, I am not the list-ticking type at all, so this was a bad idea for my personality type.

“I don’t want to read this crap!” I gently threw a paperback copy of an inoffensive but ridiculous novel across the room. I didn’t want to damage it, just to make a gesture before dropping it in the donate box–actually, boxES at this point.

There was nothing for it but to turn to some of my favorite classics, books rich in language, style, and plot.

And so I turned to Mrs. Oliphant’s delightful Chronicles of Carlingford, a six-book series which, I think, was inspired by Trollope’s Barsetshire series. All the books are set in the fictitious town of Carlingford, and many of the characters are connected with the church. Characters also recur from one novel to the next. The first in the series includes a short story, “The Rector,” and a short novel, The Doctor’s Family. Although I enjoyed “The Rector,” The Doctor’s Family is really brilliant–and I shall write a little about it here.

Young Dr. Rider lived in the new quarter of Carlingford: had he aimed at a reputation in society, he could not have done a more foolish thing; but such was not his leading motive.

Dr. Rider practices medicine in the ugly brickworkers’ part of town so as not to have to tread on the toes of the wealthy, established Dr. Marjoribanks in Carlingford proper. But Dr. Rider is frazzled and bitter, because he is unmarried, uncomfortable, and overworked. He returns every day to an unhomely home. And when his ne’er-do-well brother, Fred, shows up out of the blue and moves in, Dr. Rider is exasperated and depressed.

The only good thing about Fred: he likes to read. He lolls about the house all day drinking alcohol and reading novels. Fred ruined Dr. Rider’s living at his last practice, so Dr. Rider paid Fred’s passage to Australia and started again in Carlingford. He is horrified by Fred’s return, and worries that he will be ruined a second time.

And then the plot takes a fantastical, fascinating turn. Two young Australian women show up at Dr. Rider’s office, and one of them is Fred’s wife, Susan. Dr. Rider is flabbergasted: he had no idea Fred was married. And Susan and her younger sister, Nettie, have the impression that Fred needs to be rescued from Dr. Rider. Fred had told them falsely that Dr. Rider had ruined him, instead of the other way around. But fortunately Nettie is savvy and sees the way things are. Totally in charge of the family, she marches Fred to the hotel–where his three children also await him!

Pretty, tiny, fairy-like Nettie rents a house and supports the family on her small income. She impresses Dr. Rider with her competence and charm, and naturally his thoughts turn to marriage. The course of Dr. Rider’s courtship of the oblivious Nettie does not run smooth, though, and we have to laugh a little. Nettie is too busy managing her whiny sister and Fred. and raising the children to think about marriage. In fact, she says she will never marry.

But the marriage plot rules in The Doctor’s Family. Mrs. Oliphant has a gift for matching compatible types of people. Dr. Rider and Nettie are two of a kind–smart, hard-working, and competent–while Fred and his wife are lazy and inept, completely without conscience about sponging on their relatives. Quite a few other characters appear in the novel, and other things happen, but we are satisfied well before the end that one marriage or even more will occur.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). She is an underrated Victorian writer who somehow has not been admitted to the canon. (Sounds like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, doesn’t it?) She wrote more than 100 books to support her family, and though not all are equally good, her best are certainly as good as Mrs. Gaskell’s. As far as I know, The Carlingford Chronicles are not in print. You can find e-books. I have used copies of the old Viragos. But it’s a disgrace that Penguin and Oxford haven’t published them.

And Now…the Double Mask

Everything was normal last January, in a hysterical election-year kind of way. The political flyers for Democratic presidential candidates piled up on our mail table. I considered cutting them up and making a Bernie-Pete-Elizabeth-Amy-Biden jigsaw puzzle. All this was before the pandemic.

I knew “pan” from the Greek, but I had never heard of a “pandemic.” “Epidemic” was as far as my “TV MD” had taken me. (The syllabus includes “The Quarantine” episode on Chicago Hope, “Legionnaires, Part 2” on St. Elsewhere, and the influenza episode on Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.)

I got sick late in January 2020. I wrote here cheerily in February:

Alas, I have a touch of the flu. Between napping and meds, I haven’t left the house. Not surprisingly, I’m too sick to concentrate on Lucy Ellman’s never-ending novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which surely would have elevated me to the rank of a reigning intellectual had coughing allowed me to concentrate.

I am sure it was the flu. There were no reported cases of Covid here. But wouldn’t I have panicked if I’d been reading the news? The devastation hadn’t started yet.

And now I still can’t take in the “pan” thing: I can’t take it in that there’s nowhere to travel, that we’re not allowed in Europe, but even if we were, there’d be nothing open, so why bother? The whole world is sick.

And NOW THERE’S THE DOUBLE MASK. Today I watched a how-to video on double-masking. You need a surgical mask for the first layer. That means buying MORE masks.

First they said masks wouldn’t protect us ( there was a shortage of masks for health professionals), then they told us to wear masks (though, confusingly, they said it would not protect us, but would protect other people from us), and now I suppose one mask will protect us and the other the other people.

Yes, I’ll do my bit. I’ll wear two masks gladly.

But we’ll be so very happy when this pandemic is over.

“So say we all.” (Battlestar Galactica)

Fascinating Writers, Alive and Dead: Danielle Geller, D. H. Lawrence & J. I. M. Stewart

I resolved to read more genres this year, and recently picked up Danielle Geller’s engrossing new memoir, Dog Flowers. This thoughtful, quiet, empathetic book deals with her acceptance of a deeply flawed family and problems of identity.

Raised in Pennsylvania by her white grandmother but a member of the Navajo nation, Geller grew up in a relatively stable home but took for granted the problems of her alcoholic, divorced, often homeless parents.

The impetus for the memoir is the death of her mother, Lee, who dies homeless in a hospital in Florida. Danielle flies from Boston to Florida to visit: Danielle’s sister Eileen has a drug problem, screams at her on the phone when she hears the news, and is in trouble with the law. So Danielle holds it all together: a nurse questions her presence, because she’d been told Lee had no family, and Danielle is upset by their assumptions about homelessness. And we readers learn about the challenges that kept Lee from living a normal life. She left the Reservation in Arizona at 19, and her sporadic heavy drinking made it impossible to keep a job.

After Lee’s death, Danielle finds scraps of her mother’s writing, diaries, and letters among her belongings. She cherishes these scraps, which show her mother’s love for her daughters and appreciation of their relationship . She visits her relatives on the Reservation, and they share memories of Lee. Later, Danielle is trained in library school as an archivist. And so she archives her mother’s writings, using them as footnotes to this narrative.

Geller’s writing is flawless, graceful, and moving. Her writing reminds me of Pam Houston’s. An excellent read.

AND NOW A CONNECTION BETWEEN D. H. LAWRENCE AND J. I. M. STEWART.

A few years ago I declared D. H. Lawrence my favorite writer. His writing is brilliant, hypnotic, and darkly irresistible–but sometimes he goes too far.

I love The Rainbow, which is one of the best English novels of the 20th century. But then, alas, I went on to The Plumed Serpent, which is positively risible. An Englishwoman, Kate, visits Mexico and marries Don Ramon, a wealthy general and landowner, who claims he is the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.  It’s not just Don Ramon’s ideas that are bad: it is an incredibly bad book.

So I must share a funny passage from from J. I. M. Stewart’s The Gaudy. The narrator, Duncan, literally runs into a girl at the library, and one of her books crashes to the ground.

It was The Plumed Serpent. Janet appeared to be on her way to return it to the desk.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

This was an eternal moment, for I had done something I couldn’t–until the words were spoken–have believed myself capable of. And it had never occurred to me that Janet Finley might read books.

“No, I didn’t!” Janet replied instantly, and with a vehemence apparently unconnected with any just outrage she might have felt at being addressed by me. “That woman Kate. She watches her husband murdering people, and their blood being sprinkled on a sacred fire. And it makes her ‘uneasy.’ Just that! Not mad with horror, or crazed with some daft religious ecstasy. ‘Uneasy’–and gloomy too. I’d be gloomy! But I supposed it’s all deeply true.’

“I don’t think anything of the sort.” Although my passion for Lawrence was at that time was fathomless, I felt it should be made known to Janet that a line has sometimes to be drawn in him.

This conversation goes on for another page–I loved The Gaudy, but it would be worth reading just for this.

Hugs, Self-Care, and Comfort Books: Which Do You Need Most in the Age of Covid?

A self-hugging yoga exercise.

I am fascinated by articles about self-care. The anxious writers address the needs of their stressed-out readers by trying to sell them products like scented candles and weighted blankets. I do want those products, but I buy books instead.

Eleanor Morgan at The Guardian has a different spin: she writes about single women who are isolated during lockdown and are not getting enough hugs. She thinks the lack of hugs is damaging her subjects’ mental health. And the sympathetic Ms. Morgan leaves even the hugged of this world feeling sad: she quotes an Oxford evolutionary psychologist who claims the average person has FIVE BEST FRIENDS. And they’re all huggers.

Naturally, I felt desperate by the end of the article. I asked my husband, “Do we have five best friends?”

“No.”

“Then we might have to move to Oxford.” Heavens, that Oxford evolutionary psychologist must have quite a social life.

Even at the height of popularity (perhaps college? or my long-distance bicycling late forties?), I had many acquaintances but few close friends. Yes, you have five friends in your book club, or people you ask for dinner, but they are probably not your BEST friends. Ask people on the street if they have five best friends, and they will name their family members. Mine is my husband. I miss my mother, but she wasn’t a hugger. She did give the handshake of peace, which would be reckless these days.

It looks thoroughy uncomfortable.

If you need a hug, you can compensate with a weighted blanket, I’ve heard. I haven’t been shopping in a while, and I’ve never seen one of these. NBC says “the deep pressure of the blanket makes you feel like you’re being hugged or swaddled.” I prefer to sleep without any blankets, though I do use blankets in winter (reluctantly). But if you want a blanket that weighs 15 pounds, you have my blessing.

Far better, in my opinion, to hug yourself if you’re alone and blue. Have you done that yoga exercise where you cross your arms and and reach your hands over your shoulders? Now that is self-care!

I also advise reading comfort books. And here is a list of comfort books with links to my posts about them (when I’ve written about them).

Miss Penny and Miss Plum, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith.

Any Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers.

The Barsetshire series by Trollope (Try Framley Parsonage)

Dear Beast by Nancy Hale (if you can find it)

Anything by Ada Leverson.

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing (a cozy catastrophe)

Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley (or any of his other satires)

The Egoist by George Meredith

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

And now let me retire with a comfort book.

Philosophy in Fairy Land: George MacDonald’s “Phantastes”

It is difficult to find the half-forgotten novels of 19th-century writers like George MacDonald, who is remembered, if at all, as a children’s fantasy writer. Perhaps you have read At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, or The Princess and Curdie. Perhaps your library still has these books. But does it have MacDonald’s first adult novel Phantastes? Never mind: you can find an inexpensive Dover edition illustrated by Arthur Hughes at online bookstores, and there are countless editions by publishers I do not recognize.

George MacDonald, a clergyman, a devout Christian, and a writer of fairy tales and fantasies, was, by all accounts, something of an intense character. He was dubbed the Father of Fantasy for his wild imagination and love of the fantasy/fairy tale genre. And his influence on other writers, especially C. S. Lewis, was enormous.

In Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he writes that he had long been on a fruitless quest for joy and finally found it in the ending of Phantastes, which converted him to Christianity. In the preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, Lewis wrote, “What [Phantastes] actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise … my imagination.”

Phantastes is billed as a novel–but it isn’t quite. It is a hybrid mix of prose and verse and could be labeled “experimental.”

The story line is simple, and takes the form of a journey, but there is no particular plot. When the wealthy narrator, Anodos, wakes up on his twenty-first birthday, he is startled by a statuette-sized woman, who pops out of his father’s desk. During their talk, she magically grows into a tall majestic woman. And she tells him the news that he will go to Fairy Land. Not quite what he had in mind.

The room breaks down into a dream. It metamorphoses into an outdoor scene: the basin becomes a spring that runs into a stream over the carpet; the carpet’s design of grass and daisies turn into a border of grass and daisies. As for his dressing table:

My dressing-table was an old-fashioned piece of furniture of black oak, with drawers all down the front. These were elaborately carved in foliage, of which ivy formed the chief part. The nearer end of this table remained just as it had been, but on the further end a singular change had commenced. I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy-leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakable ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers. Hearing next a slight motion above me, I looked up, and saw that the branches and leaves designed upon the curtains of my bed were slightly in motion.

MacDonald’s surreal prose can be verbose, but you soon get used to it. I loved the fairy tale aspects of Phantastes. Sometimes the narrator falls into dreams and reads or listens to stories.I was especially fascinated by the story of Cosmo, a young bohemian who buys an antique mirror with unusual carvings on the frame. Naturally, it is a magic mirror; and in its reflection, a beautiful woman lives in Cosmo’s room. He becomes obsessed with her and begins to teach swordsmanship in order to make money to furnish the room elaborately. But how can he break the spell and meet the woman?

Some of the stories are told in verse. And some, decidedly, are better than others. Here are a few melancholy stanzas of one that goes on for four pages. Some of these are better than others.

Sir Aglovaile through the churchyard rode;
SING, ALL ALONE I LIE:
Little recked he where'er he yode,
ALL ALONE, UP IN THE SKY.
Swerved his courser, and plunged with fear
ALL ALONE I LIE:
His cry might have wakened the dead men near,
ALL ALONE, UP IN THE SKY.

As for the Christian symbolism in Phantastes, the reader joins the naive narrator in the struggle between good and evil, learns who the good trees are and who the evil (avoid the Ash and Alder!), realizes that fairies abide by different rules than humans, and pits himself against the ominous shadow picked up along the way. Anodos is always in trouble, because he doesn’t follow directions. And he is also often enchanted, i.e., under a spell, so we can’t blame him too much.

Truthfully, I delighted in the journey through Fairy Land, but the writing is uneven. Some scenes are tediously static. Lots of wandering through beautiful scenery. I preferred the stories Anodos hears to own rather dull adventures. And I alternately enjoyed and was exasperated by the poetry.

MacDonald was prolific, and he loved describing his Fairy Land, but my guess is that some of his other adult books would be more my cup of tea. Still, I can tick this off my genre-reading list. It is a fantasy classic! C. S. Lewis liked it more than I did.

N.B. Anodos (the hero’s name) means “pathless” or “without a road” in Greek.

The Year As a Blog: An Inauguration & Bookish Leftovers

Finally, 2020 is over. Yesterday Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. There were no right-wing riots, thank God, and, indeed, the inauguration went off smoothly, despite a newscaster’s hushed aside: “President Trump still has the nuclear bomb code till noon.”

Without any such nerve-racking journalistic comments, there was plenty of excitement for those of us who are fans of boredom in politics. Joe Biden and his wife Jill looked glamorous, radiantly smooth-skinned, blonde and/or white-haired respectively. Joe wore a dark suit (that’s as far as I go in male fashion critique), while Dr. Jill Biden wore a stylish blue dress and matching coat made of silk, velvet, tweed, and chiffon. This smart ensemble, according to Town and Country, suggested the stability of past inauguration ceremonies, and of previous First Ladies, like Jackie Kennedy, daubed with a tweedy touch of the Royals.

The Bidens

Naturally, Lady Gaga dazzled with far-out fashion, wearing a Schiaparelli cashmere jacket and a fun red puffy skirt that no one else could wear with aplomb. In her inimitable way, she sang the national anthem (and will it go to the top of the charts?). She actually made it sound like great music.

We saw Joe Biden sworn-in as president and listened to his speech. He used the word “unity” several times: that once-normal word was a great relief. And then I turned off the TV and forgot about politics. AND THAT’S HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE. AS I went on a walk, the tension seemed to rise off my body and disappear.

The inauguration got me thinking about transitions in time. Years blur together in my mind, but time is distinctive at the blog, with its constant reminders of date of post, exact time posted, date of comment, etc. And so I mused on my abrupt “blog” transitions from year to year: a glance at my bedside table tells me I am still very much LAST YEAR in terms of the stack of books. Here are four newish books on the stack (only one read). Will I read my leftovers this year?

Last year I intended to read Susanna Clarke’s much-praised Piranesi, and I finally got around to it. This exquisite novel is fascinating and eerie, but does not rise above the genre level, at least for me. That said, I do not know anything about Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Perhaps that would clarify? Does Clarke allude to him, or not? I admired this book, and note that endings seem to be difficult for writers. An almost-classic.

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis. I loved her last novel, The Gods of Tango, set during the early 20th century in Buenos Aires; De Robertis seamlessly delineates the life of a fascinating a young Italian immigrant who disguises herself as a man so she can play the violin in a tango band–a strictly all-male enterprise. Her new book, Cantoras, sounds very different. Set in 1977 in Uruguay, under a dictatorship, this novel describes the danger of political dissent, and we learn that homosexuality is punished by torture or imprisonment. The five heroines of the novel are cantoras (“singers”), which is slang for lesbian. They make a safe life for themselves on Cabio Polonio, an isolated cape whose only other inhabitants are the lighthouse keeper and a few seal hunters. Over the next 35 years, the relationships of the cantoras evolve and change. I look forward to reading it.

Love without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard by Melvyn Bragg. What better way to catch up on the romance of Heloise and Abelard than through a retelling? Bragg’s novel moves back and forth between the twelfth century and the twenty-first century: Arthur, a historian and writer, is in Paris writing a novel about Heloise and Abelard, when his daughter joins him to help with research. Sounds like my kind of read.

Daughter of Black Lake, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. I loved her novel The Day the Falls Stood Still, set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 1915-1923, a beautifully-written historical novel with a strong environmental slant. Her new book, The Daughter of Black Lake, set in Britannia in the first century A.D., is a different endeavor. It is, according to the book jacket, the story of a young girl named Devout, who lives a simple life revolving around harvest and honoring Mother Earth. Seventeen years later, Devout has a gift (I don’t know what it is!) that helps save her people during famine and the occupation of the Roman military.

Are you planning to read books from last year’s TBR? Or do you move on?

A Neglected Novelist: J. I. M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes

We are overwhelmed by current events. I keep reading the news, though I should not. If only there were wise women to make anti-reality charms, as there are in fairy tales.

“It is all too much for me,” I said dramatically after seeing brutal film footage on TV.

Avoiding the news is my best advice, but I also made a New Year’s resolution to read more genre books. Cozy mysteries are ever-relaxing. I can feel my breathing slow down as I peruse a Patricia Moyes or Edmund Crispin.

J.I.M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes

Ironically, it was a reading of Michael Innes’ absorbing mystery, A Private Affair, that brought me back to literary fiction. Michael Innes was the pen name of J. I. M. Stewart, a writer of serious novels and non-fiction under his own name.

Stewart (1906-1994), born in Edinburgh, educated at Oxford, and a distinguished critic, lecturer, and professor at Oxford, is forgotten in the U.S. The university libraries have Michael Innes’s books, but Stewart’s books have vanished without a trace. Fortunately, you can also buy cheap copies of the used books online. House of Stratus has reissued them in paperback and e-book format.

I began with Stewart’s The Gaudy (1974), the first in his acclaimed quintet, A Staircase in Surrey. I love this series, mostly set at Oxford, which contains many allusions to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Stewart’s narrator, Duncan Pattullo, a successful playwright, returns to Oxford for the first time in 20 years to attend a gaudy, which is an annual dinner and gathering for alumni. The administration houses Duncan in his old room at Surrey (a college at Oxford), which has been vacated for the weekend by its undergraduate inhabitant, Nicolas Junkin (a play on the name of Powell’s famous character Nicholas Jenkins, the charming narrator of Dance to the Music of Time). When the two meet by chance, because of a muddle about the dates, Duncan feels paternal and slightly nostalgic for the undergraduate’s idealism. In a way, Junkin is his younger doppelgänger. Perhaps Stewart is also doffing his hat to Powell’s somewhat kinder fictional world.

Powell has a dry humor. At the gaudy, it is difficult to recognize old friends and aged tutors, and this is presented as broad comedy. Duncan’s old tutor, Talbert, is in a fog as to Duncan’s identity.

“Ah–Dalrymple!” Talbert said. “We are very pleased that you have been able to come to our dinner.” His voice held all its own unbelievable degree of huskiness–and its old effect, too, of a gravitas quite beyond the reach of a common scholar’s capacity. He might have been announcing something of the deepest import arrived at that morning in an arcane divan, a hortus conclusus dedicated to the just privacy of the councils of princes, and now by him responsibly divulged to some person of desert and discretion among the world’s profane.

Once Duncan identifies himself, Talbert changes gear and asks if he still writes plays. Almost everybody asks this question, which is mortifying, since Duncan has a play in London right now.

I am delighted by Stewart’s witty portrayal of life at Oxford. But I should tell you, Stewart’s world is grittier and darker than Anthony Powell’s. Duncan’s charming old friend Tony Marchmont, now Lord Marchpane, breaks down after the banquet and asks Duncan for help with his son, Ivo, an ordinary bloke who is flunking out, and also may be shadily involved with a suicide (he made a wager with a boy who killed himself) and possibly involved in a rape. TThe men collude with another old friend, a travel writer who is apparently a secret agent, to whisk Ivo out of the country.

But don’t judge Ivo too quickly, readers. The people at Oxford, even the Provost’s wife, think Ivo is rather sweet, and no more callow than most undergrads. The Provost’s wife explains that the boy who killed himself was already in psychological trouble, and she was trying to keep an eye on him: Ivo could in no way be held responsible. But near the end of the book, after many conversations with fascinating, eccentric academics, Duncan sees Tony again. Now that Ivo is safe, Tony shows his ugly side. The problem solved, Tony has no concerns . He says some things so brutal about women that even Duncan is stunned. And Duncan realizes he no longer knows his friends. Time has changed them to the point where they ARE unrecognizable.

The hope, in this novel, seems to be with the academics. They are sweet, completely absorbed in textual criticism, and definitely hilarious. Talbert’s son, Charles, an editor at OUP, believes he can make money off an intellectual game he has invented, a kind of Scrabble with ancient Greek words on one side of the tiles and Russian on the other. “Do you include a digamma?” Duncan asks, hoping to put off playing the game.

When Oxford offers Duncan a five-year job teaching Western drama, he accepts. We see him, still cynical, but hoping to inhabit a calmer state of mind, living among kind, if distracted academics.

What a brilliant, fun read!

And, remember, there is always Michael Innes, whose books are far easier to find in the U.S.

Are You Respectable? Reading Crime Classics

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more genre fiction. You are shocked, I know. (Well, you probably are not.) The best genre fiction is as good as or better than the more anemic of literary novels. And genre books have a certain aura in our bookish household: mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy are pretty much taboo, because my husband thinks they are a waste of time, except for Simenon.

Some love mysteries, all mysteries. I prefer cozies to police procedurals. It wasn’t until I discovered Dorthy Sayers in my twenties that I enjoyed mysteries at all. Then I got hooked on the Four Queens of Crime, Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. And in recent years I have discovered other English mystery writers of the Golden Age.

Recently, I discovered two “crime classics” by Richard Hull and Michael Gilbert. Hull especially is an expert plotter and a smooth stylist

Hull’s Keep It Quiet (1935) is the most delightful of cozy classic crime. When a man drops dead after eating a soufflé at the Whitehall Club in London, was it murder, or a natural death?

The plot unfolds at lightning pace, and Hull’s inimitable humor is revealed in the opening paragraph.

In a way it was all Benson’s fault; or perhaps it was Mrs Benson’s. It might even have been possible for those who must strive to trace things back to their primary origins to have blamed Benson’s doctor for prescribing perchloride of mercury for a carbuncle –but that would be going too far.

The trouble starts when Mrs. Benson’s wife gives her husband an old vanilla bottle filled with perchloride of mercury to take to to the club where he is chef. He knows that perchloride of mercury is to be rubbed on his skin; if imbibed, it is lethal poison. After dinner, Morrison, a chronic complainer, drops dead in the club library. Did Benson put the WRONG vanilla in the soufflé?

I love the character Ford, the bumbling secretary of the club, who reads The Three Musketeers in his office and wonders how D’Artagnan would cope as manager of the club. Ford is a nervous wreck over Morrison’s death, and initiates a cover-up. Dr. Anstruther, a club member who happens to have been Morrison’s doctor, firmly says it is heart failure. The doctor swears the panicked Ford to secrecy, because Ford tends to blab and it probably WAS heart failure.

And then it begins: a blackmail campaign. Ford and Dr. Anstruther receive threatening notes. The novel becomes darker and more sinister, so I am not quite sure if this is 100% a cozy. Sometimes I suspected the culprit, but did not know for sure till nearly the end. I did admire and enjoy this tightly-woven mystery, and will seek more books by Hull.

Michael Gilbert’s Death Has Deep Roots (1951) is part courtroom drama, part action adventure. This is a cozy, fun, rollicking novel, but you read it for action and plot: the characters are so shallow it is hard to take seriously. Victoria Lamartine, a former member of the French Resistance, is accused of murdering Eric Thoseby at the English hotel where she works. She had written a letter asking him to help her find out what happened to her English lover, who disappeared when the Nazis swooped on the farmhouse where they were hidden. The team of solicitors has just a week to dig up evidence on Victoria’s behalf. And it is a wild ride, because many criminals are involved.

Honestly, I didn’t think this was terrific. But it was published in the British Library Classic Crime series, so I had to read it.

It is fun, but perhaps this isn’t Gilbert’s best.