I first heard about Patricia Wentworth and her Miss Silver mystery series from Jenn. As I love traditional mysteries and am always looking for new series to try, I decided to request Latter End pretty much at random from my library’s catalogue.
Miss Silver is an amateur sleuth, as well as being a spinster and retired governness. She first appeared in 1928, and Wentworth continued writing novels featuring her until 1961! My library only has five of series, and since Latter End was written in 1947, it falls in the middle of Wentworth’s writing career. It is definitely a classic mystery: a murder occurs in an old family house, there’s a limited pool of suspects, all of whom have motives, and Miss Silver uses deduction and her fine attention to detail to solve the crime. She also knits throughout, which I enjoyed: I suspect Wentworth herself was a knitter because the knitting is somehow more solid and practical than Miss Marple’s, if that makes sense.
Anyway, I loved spending time with Miss Silver and the puzzle that Wentworth constructed. It took me a bit longer than usual to figure it out, which is always fun! Wentworth’s prose is more serviceable and straightforward than flowery, but that’s fine for mysteries. I will say that gender roles in the book frustrated me a bit: even the apparently strong-willed and independent young woman going to pieces and needing a manly shoulder to cry on. On the other hand I imagine the psychological burden of having a murder committed in your house, being considered a suspect yourself, and knowing it must be one of your family that is the killer would be quite harrowing. Wentworth doesn’t focus on psychology a la P.D. James, but her acknowledgment of it does humanise her characters.
All in all, I will be reading more Miss Silvers in the future. I’ve always wished Christie wrote more Miss Marples, so I’m thrilled to have learned about Wentworth! The prospect of a whole new series of comfort reads is quite satisfying indeed.
You know that sinking feeling, when you’ve read and loved an author’s previous book, and begin another one she’s written, and suddenly realise it might not be as good? But you keep reading, hoping you’re wrong, and it just gets worse and worse? And when you finish you realise you should have abandoned it at the beginning, like your instincts told you to? No? Just me? Well that in a nutshell is how I felt about The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer. I loved his book about the Dalai Lama, and I was thrilled he had such an extensive back list. I decided to pick up The Lady and the Monk, because Kyoto intrigues me. I expected a thoughtful, multicultural, new-world-order kind of thing. Instead, I found a deeply disturbing account of Iyer’s time living in Kyoto, complete with creepy friendship-turned-affair he conducted with a Japanese housewife. Um, yeah.
It’s not that I think all such relationships are creepy; no, it’s the way that Iyer wrote about it that was so problematic. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book handy to share passages, so you’ll just have to trust me. First, Iyer creates this weird conceit that Japan is best summed up in the dual figures of a (male, stoic, enlightened) monk and a (feminine, helpless, man-ensnaring, devoted-to-superficial-appearances) lady, and proceeds to analyse all of his experiences through that terribly sexist lens. Which was infuriating enough, but then this Japanese woman entered the picture, and it was as if Iyer never quite realised she was a real, live person. He was so busy objectifying her, making her represent his clever little idea, that it seems as if he carried on this whole relationship just for the sake of his book/argument.
By the end of the book, I was utterly disgusted with Iyer and wishing that the girlfriend had written her own account. As it is, I’m now sad that rather than exploring the rest of his books, I’ll be avoiding him due to his objectification of women. Honestly, the older I get, the less patience I have for that kind of nonsense. It’s particularly disappointing in an author who purports to be cosmopolitan.
Companion Replacement Reads
- The Makioka Sisters by Junchiro Tanizaki (Haven’t blogged about this, but Tanizaki does an excellent job of capturing the lives of upper class Japanese women in a time of social change as Japan approaches WWII. Loved it!)
- A Year in Japan by Kate Williamson : a quiet, reflective, illustrated travelogue by a Canadian artist who spent a year Kyoto.
- A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (which I haven’t blogged about, but it’s just as wonderful as all the hype would have you believe)
- The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura : Okakura lays out some Japanese philosophy for a Western audience in this wonderfully entrancing book which touches some of the themes Iyer attempts to bring up.
- The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan : let’s let a Japanese woman speak for herself, eh? ;)
Nunnally is one of my favourite Scandinavian translators, so when I discovered she’d worked on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, I knew I wanted to read them. I decided to request this at the same time as Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment, imagining the two would complement each other nicely, and it was definitely nice to have Andersen’s tales nearby to reference while reading the Hardyment. While I’m sure I read at least his most famous ones when I was a child, I hadn’t revisited his actual writing for years and years.
And how did I get on with it? Well, Andersen had that magic. He was able to write the kinds of stories that sink into your bones, and his writing, especially in Nunnally’s excellent translation, struck a wonderful tone. As an artist, Andersen couldn’t help but impress me, and these truly do feel like fairy tales for adults. I especially loved the stories that featured winter: Andersen’s descriptive powers seem to be at their best calling to mind the cold climates of his native land. But that’s probably my own bias showing: I prefer winter and snow and ice to summer and heat and humidity. Of course, “The Shadow” is the story that sent the most shivers down my spine, despite its lack of wintry imagery. Truly, deliciously creepy.
I must say that found many of his larger themes, ones that showed up over and over in his stories, disturbing. Many of his plots are gruesome, and somehow it’s a different form of gruesomeness compared to traditional fairy tales. It seems far easier to find the moral in an Andersen story than in something you’d find in the Brothers Grimm, where things seem far more arbitrary, particularly in the earliest versions. And the stories seemed particularly focused on punishing their female characters. To be fair, most of them punish all of their characters, and I can’t be more precise about it, simply that by the end of the collection I felt uneasy whenever a girl or woman appeared in a story. Perhaps it’s that they didn’t usually have the same strength of characters as the male ones? With the exception of the girls in “The Snow Queen” of course!
Having included that caveat, I have to admit I returned my library copy quite reluctantly. These are the kinds of stories I’d like to revisit, and I’m terribly tempted to buy a copy for myself (particularly since this translation comes in a Penguin clothbound edition!). I’m now quite curious about Andersen’s life, which is unusual for me (normally, my view on learning more about author’s private lives ranges from indifference to outright avoidance). Luckily, Jackie Wullschlager, who wrote the preface to this edition, has done a biography, and I adored her biography of Chagall, so I’m sure I’ll be in good hands.
If you’re interested in Andersen, I thoroughly recommend this edition: between Nunnally’s translations, Wullschlager’s preface, and the inclusion of Andersen’s own paper cut out art, the only shame is that it’s limited to thirty of his tales instead of them all. As for me, I reserve judgement on Andersen until I’ve come to know him better. He is the kind of author that invites rereading, and I’m the kind of reader who’s happy to oblige.
As a general rule, I love books about bookish topics. As another general rule, I love history that looks at the day-to-day lives of everyday people, especially those who are normally pushed to the margins. So when I heard about Forgotten Readers by Elizabeth McHenry, which looks at historical (1830-1940) African American readers, I couldn’t resist requesting it from the library right away!
Happily, it was full of just the kind of information I’d hoped for. Starting in the antebellum North, McHenry looks first at the reading habits of free blacks and then at the black press that supported those habits, a connection that while obvious in retrospect I wasn’t expecting to be in a book about reading. In the post Civil War era, McHenry looks at how literacy and reading plans became tied to blacks becoming full citizens and bettering themselves and their race, as a kind of intellectual counterargument to widely held racist assumptions. Infantilising black people has always been a key element of white superiority, and in the age of Booker T. Washington, literary societies became as much moral philosophy clubs as places to discuss books. I especially liked that McHenry devoted a whole chapter (there are only five in the book, other than introduction and epilogue) to black women readers during this time period, as it was an era of momentous change for women. McHenry finally turns to the post-WWI period, including the Harlem Renaissance, before tying everything in to contemporary publishing, in an era that as we know still favours white authors and imagines that putting a white model on the cover of a book with a main character of colour will ‘appeal more’ to readers and thus sell more copies. I would have liked an even stronger analysis of the white privilege present in publishing, but given McHenry’s subject, I understood that she instead focused primarily on book clubs.
Forgotten Readers, and books like it, are so important because they challenge the way that history is generally thought of. African Americans, at least in school textbooks, are often portrayed as completely lacking in agency. To learn about presses and literary societies and individuals working to change their society through books counteracts all of that, making African Americans firmly subjects instead of objects. I’m thrilled that McHenry wrote this, so that I could peek in on the lives of past readers, who were both radically different from and quite similar to myself, and I look forward to seeing what books she writes in the future. I especially love reading about people connecting over books since the twenty-first century version has been so important to my own life! ;)
That being said, while I found the topic fascinating and McHenry’s treatment strong, I will say it lacked a bit of, well, spark. For me at least, it was a solidly good read, rather than the kind of book that makes me want to abuse my exclamation point key and shamelessly gush to everyone I know. If you have even the slightest curiosity about the topic, definitely pick this one up. There’s a lot to learn, and much of it is fascinating. But if you lack self motivation, McHenry’s not the kind of nonfiction writer who sets out to entrance the reader. Know what I mean?
It’s time for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event celebrating fantasy authors of colour. As any regular reader knows, reading diversely is dear to my heart, as is the fantasy genre, so I have to post about it today! And as I just finished rereading Jemisin’s inheritance trilogy, I thought it’d be fun to spotlight her as a twist on my AMA series.
If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. If you’re curious, you can see everyone I’ve featured so far.
I first discovered Jemisin in late 2011 thanks to a Laura Miller article. I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and loved it. Shortly thereafter I finished the other two in the Inheritance Trilogy (The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods), got my mom to read them so we could talk about them together (she loved them too), and generally revelled in the knowledge that I had found a new favourite author. Both books in her second series, The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, were published in 2012, but for some reason my library only bought the second one. This led me to exercising the supreme self control of waiting for the library to agree to my purchase request for The Killing Moon while not just jumping into The Shadowed Sun so that I could read them in order. I’m glad I did! When I finally got to read them I loved them too. As I’ve now read all five of her books once and four of those twice (next up for rereading is The Shadowed Sun) and still can’t get enough of her. I really hope her next novel gets published soon, and that there’s a short story collection in the works so I don’t have to start tracking down her published stories in random magazines, that’s how much of a Jemisin fangirl I am. I don’t actually own any of her books yet, because I can’t decide if I want physical or electronic copies, but as soon as I do decide I’ll be ordering them.
Sadly I’m in the middle of a flare up (writing this in real time rather than publishing a draft I wrote ages ago!) so my brain is not functioning well enough to do her justice. I’ll just have to gush stream-of-consciousness style instead. I adore Jemisin because every single character she writes I connect to, even the minor ones. Because her settings are incredibly well thought out and detailed, down to slang names for neighbourhoods. Because her gods are complicated, weird, awe inspiring, and loveable, just as gods should be, and the mythologies of both her series have that inexplicable ring of truth. Because her plots are page-turning, rollicking, but wonderful twists at the end. Because she somehow manages to incorporate all of my favourite elements of mythology and fantasy and culture (I literally squealed out loud when I began The Kingdom of the Gods and realised it would be focused on Sieh, a trickster child god! And then I squealed again upon discovering the Dreamblood books were inspired by ancient Egypt!) while keeping her books entirely fresh. Because at the same time that she writes roller coaster, devour-in-one-sitting books, she’s incorporating so much commentary on social norms, be their political or racial or gender or sexual orientation related, and all of her commentary is progressive and smart without being preachy or inorganic to the story. It’s the details of her worlds and the glee with which she fills them with kickass, gender busting characters of both genders while exposing and challenging all kinds of structural prejudices that make rereading her books such a delight.
I went into all of her books ‘blind,’ which as usual I think made my reading experience better. So hopefully I’ve convinced you to read her books despite not telling you what they’re about! Assuming I have, you’ve got two choices: you can begin with the Inheritance books or Dreamblood ones. They’re both wonderful and set in different worlds, but Inheritance (first book: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) is entirely high/epic fantasy with a lot more active god characters running about while Dreamblood’s world (first book: The Killing Moon) bears similarities with ancient Egypt and feels like high fantasy and historical fantasy mixed together. If one of those ideas appeals to you more, start there. Otherwise you can either read them in published order (Inheritance, then Dreamblood) or the order Jemisin wrote them (Dreamblood, then Inheritance). Or just go by whichever you can get from your library/bookstore/etc. fastest! ;) Oh, another thing I love about Jemisin is that while she writes multiple books set in the same world, that chronologically follow upon each other, each works completely as a stand alone ending, including having a complete plot line. They’re not Lord of the Rings style trilogies, where it’s really just one giant book cut up so readers won’t get scared. There are no cliffhanger endings, and the main characters of one book aren’t the main characters of the following one (although they do put in cameos!). I would still highly recommend reading them in order so that you don’t spoil the endings of the first books for yourself, but it’s not necessary to have the next one on hand to begin right after you finish the first.
I hope my semicoherent ramblings have gotten some of you to give Jemisin a go. Even if you’re not a confirmed fantasy lover like myself, as long you enjoy masterfully written, smart literature, I think you’ll get along with Jemisin perfectly. As for me? I just ran over and borrowed the ebook version of The Shadowed Sun from my library so that I can reread it sooner rather than later. Happy Diverse Universe everyone; I can’t wait to expand my TBR list.
Sometimes I want books that challenge me, provoke me, thrill me. And sometimes I just want something well written but light hearted, that I can curl up with while sipping a cup of tea and remind myself that the world is full of good as well as bad. Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment admirably fulfilled the latter need! Hardyment is English, and one summer she decided to go on a caravan trip around Europe, with her four daughters and eventually husband (due to work obligations, he couldn’t join in from the beginning; instead, the caravan was even more full when Hardyment’s friend and baby daughter ride along). In order to keep the children interested, Hardyment came up with the brilliant idea to structure the trip around visiting the scenes of various children’s books and fairy tales. While several books are referenced, Hardyment seems particularly entranced with Hans Christian Andersen, providing a light common theme running through the story.
But really, this is just a fun, bookish adventure tale! Hardyment is good at sketching scenes and has a wry sense of humour, willing to poke fun at herself as well as her family. While the mood occasionally becomes more serious, particularly when the family ventures into East Germany (this occurred in the 1980s), for the most part it left me smiling and giggling. I was also quite jealous of the campervan; between this book and Carr’s journals I’m now in love with the idea of having a little campervan of my own. I imagine Thistle and I would be quite snug in it! Sadly, they seem not to exist in the US, land of monster RVs and pick up truck bed camping and nothing in between.
Back to the book: reading it feels as if you’ve invited your smart and funny friend to tea, and over the afternoon she fills you in on her family’s latest trip. I found the combination of domestic details with literary bits and travelling scenes irresistible, and I suspect many other readers will agree. It’s sadly out of print, but hopefully your library or used bookstore will have a copy! Thanks to Danielle for her wonderful (and far more detailed) post that had me pick this one up in the first place! And if anyone else has any bookish travel themed books to suggest, I’d be appreciative.
Oh how I wanted to love Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. On paper, it was perfect: a history book that focuses on the margins (my favourite kind), a respected POC author (as opposed to a white academic writing about a different ethnic group from an inherently privileged position, which is all too common), and it was available as an ebook so I wouldn’t have to aggravate my arthritis by handling a massive physical copy. I was a bit concerned straight off the bat, when the book opens with what sounds like the beginning of a novel:
The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her.
In fact, when I first got this book from the library, I abandoned it within a few pages due to it sounding too much like fiction. But this time I flipped to the “notes on methodology” section in the back and discovered Wilkerson combined more traditional scholarly research with interviews. So I decided to keep on open mind, especially since after the sketchy (to me) opening the book quickly moves on to a more analytical overview of the Great Migration. I assumed that the story bits would be sprinkled throughout a book made up of primarily more trustworthy analysis. I assumed wrongly.
Now, I want to say that I’ve read nonfiction excellent books based on nontraditional sources, including oral ones (to name one of many, Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom). And I’m well aware that any marginalised history is going to have a more challenging go of finding traditional academic sources due to its very nature. What drove me insane about The Warmth of Other Suns is that rather than present the thousands of interviews she conducted (they’re cited in the back), with an analysis of patterns, exceptions, etc., she instead spends the vast majority of the book recounting the stories of just three people. Now, there’s a reason statistics become more trustworthy as the sample pool grows larger: the more people involved, the safer it is to interpret similarities as patterns or find common themes. By focusing on three people, Wilkerson gives up that authenticity, and I spent much of my reading experience not only deeply skeptical of the stories being presented (at the very least, discounting the giant temptation anyone would face to change their story to present themselves in a better light, especially knowing it would be part of a published book, it’s been neurologically shown that memories change over time and are easily suggestable) but frustrated Wilkerson for her apparent willingness to accept everything told to her at face value. To give you one tiny example: at one point, she’s describing the “love” and “commitment to marriage” and “sense of duty” one of the male subjects has that prevents him from divorcing his wife a mere paragraph or two after mentioning his extramarital affair that resulted in another child. Seriously?! I kept wanting to see a conglomerate of stories interwoven with history and analysis, rather than essentially three-memoirs-in-one, woven together with a bit of background. I should have abandoned this, but I kept telling myself the next chapter would get to the meat of Wilkerson’s arguments and discoveries. Somehow that chapter never came.
What I find most tragic about this is that the bits of analysis are wonderfully written, and I truly believe The Warmth of Other Suns had the potential to be such a wonderful book. Wilkerson is clearly intelligent and passionate and an excellent, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. But it felt like in her hyper-focus on two men and one woman, she’d missed the forest for the trees. Nevertheless I do hope its reception inspires others to write more rigorous accounts of what is a key aspect of American history, one that still impacts modern culture. I suppose this is an excellent example of why it’s better to go into a book with no expectations, the better to ward off readerly disappointment when the author clearly has a different aim from the one you’d like to see!