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.  

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.

Two Books for Fall: Zola’s “Germinal” and Stanley Middleton’s “Valley of Decision”

I retire early to bed with books these days.  What do I recommend?  Zola’s Germinal and Stanley Middleton’s  Valley of Decision.

Zola’s Germinal is not for everybody.  I was perusing James Mustich’s new reference book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, and surprised to find Germinal named as Zola’s masterpiece. IT IS the most over-the-top book ever written!   When I read it at 21, I found it so depressing I raced through it just to be done.  And I’m a Zola fan.

What do I think many, many years later?  Well, it is gloomy. Set in a coal-mining town in France, it details the harshness of the work and everyday life.  People  live like animals, they sleep in shifts in crowded houses, they beg, they starve, they fornicate practically in public.  The main character is Etienne, the son of the alcoholics in Zola’s L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den). He arrives at loose ends and takes a job in the mines.  The focus is largely on Etienne and the Maheu family.  All of the Maheus, except the wife and youngest children, work in the mine, and the conditions  are horrendous.  Etienne preaches radical ideas and organizes a strike.  And the strike is a disaster, because the miners have no power.

Everybody dies.   Almost everybody.

I kept exclaiming out loud, “Poor horse!”  “Poor Catherine!”  Did I weep?  I think so.

I prefer Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, and The Conquest of PassansGerminal is brilliant, but I can’t survive it every day.

Stanley Middleton’s Valley of Decision is melancholy but upbeat after  Germinal Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday.  Set in the Midlands, Valley of Decision is a beautifully-written novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.  David and his wife Mary are happy.  They have a lot in common:  David teaches music and is an amateur cellist; Mary is a former opera singer.  When she  is offered a gig in the U.S. singing opera on a two-months’ university tour, David and Mary agree she should do it.  It is an opportunity for Mary, though she doesn’t want a professional career.

While she is away, David begins to perform with a prestigious quartet.  It takes up time, and he loves it. Middleton’s descriptions of the rehearsals, conversations about music,  and the concerts are fascinating.  I’m not even musical.

Mary is a hit in Handel’s  Semele.  But suddenly she stops writing to David and won’t answer his phone calls. She is not in touch with her parents or David’s parents, either.  David  is worried.  He continues with his music, and that is a saving grace, but he becomes depressed.

Where is Mary?  we wonder.

A brilliant little novel, the kind of thing that might get overlooked now.  Personally I wish there were more short, pitch-perfect (no pun intended) novels like this.


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