Monthly Archives: March 2008

Till tomorrow …

Well, I was going to post on Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan tonight, but I got sidetracked by listening to Barack Obama’s amazing speech, and now I need to finish The Gathering so that Hobgoblin has time to read it before Friday’s book group meeting.  So, until tomorrow …

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The race and the play

My race today got canceled because of snow that never actually materialized (the race promoter had to make a judgment call yesterday and the forecast wasn’t looking good then), but I’m grateful because I developed a sore throat yesterday and needed to take two naps today. It’s safe to assume I would not have done well had I tried to race. My racing season isn’t getting off to such a good start, but I can’t say I care a whole lot — the riding not the racing is the point for me. So far I’ve ridden 930 miles this year, which is just about what I rode last year, and I feel like I’m riding stronger and faster.

So, the play on Friday was a bit of a disappointment. I saw Vigil, written by Morris Panych and thought the play’s premise had a lot of potential that the play itself didn’t live up to. Mostly I was disappointed because I wanted to have the experience of losing myself in the performance, of forgetting that I was in a theater and getting so caught up in the story I didn’t want it to end. The last two times I’ve been to the theater I’ve missed that experience, and I wonder if it happens less often than I think, or if I’ve just had bad luck. I’m not one to lose myself easily in stories when I’m reading; I tend to keep an analytical distance, even when I’m enjoying the book and having an emotional response to the characters or the situation. I just don’t tend to forget I’m sitting there turning pages every now and then. With films, though, I’ll get caught up in the story fairly easily, and I wonder why that doesn’t seem to translate to the theater. Perhaps it has something to do with the way going to the theater feels like an event, as it isn’t something I do that often, and perhaps the unusualness of it makes me keep the self-awareness that precludes getting caught up in the story.

The play’s premise is that a lonely, isolated man, who is also almost unbearably self-centered and misanthropic, quits his job to come take care of his aunt who is on her deathbed. The aunt is not approaching death fast enough for this man, however, an opinion he makes abundantly clear to the poor woman. The first part of the play basically consists of jokes where the man says in a variety of horrifying ways that he wishes his aunt would hurry up and die.

What makes the play interesting is that, at least initially, the aunt doesn’t speak at all. This is not explained (at least not at first); we just accept that for some reason she responds to the man with gestures and facial expressions, but without words. I liked this set-up because it gives the man room to say whatever he wants, to reveal things about himself, to tell stories about his past, and he can do this because he has not just a listener, but one whose only judgment is a stare or a grimace or a smile. His audience never interrupts him, or offers an opinion, or asks him to be quiet.

The man does tell lots of stories about himself and does reveal things about his past and his personality (which is pretty messed up), but the disappointing thing is I never felt these stories added up to much. It was just one funny or moving or horrifying story after another. Now the play’s main plot is about the evolving relationship between the man and his aunt so it does have a traditional story arc that is satisfying in its own way, but so much of the play is taken up with the man’s monologues that I thought for sure all those stories would end up going somewhere. Instead they seemed to be there merely to make the audience laugh and to make the man look troubled and pathetic.

But in spite of my doubts about the play, I did enjoy the whole experience; it’s a pleasure to be able to critique something when it’s finished, after all, and that’s not a pleasure I take lightly.

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Friday notes

I’m going to see a play this evening called Vigil written by Morris Panych, a man the theater’s website calls “one of Canada’s greatest award-winning playwrights.” It’s described as a black comedy, which sounds great to me. I’ll make sure to let you know how I liked it.

A work friend invited Hobgoblin and I to see the play, the same friend I’ll be starting a book group with, which meets for the first time next Friday. I’ve begun reading the first book, which is Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I’m not sure how the discussion will go; it could be interesting because my friend has finished the novel, and while by the end she decided she liked it, in the middle she had some grave doubts. I’ve read maybe the first 20 pages, and I find myself irritated by it. This may be a matter of my mood; I go through stages when I can’t stand much contemporary fiction, particularly of the literary “lyrical” sort. I was irritated by the way the first-person narrator kept jumping around in time, from idea to idea, character to character, taking her time to put things together so I could feel I’m on solid footing. I thought she should just get to the point.

You can see why I chalk this up to my current mood — I’m not proud of feeling irritated by a narrator who asks me to work a little bit. I feel lazy when I complain in this way. But sometimes what I need is some straightforward storytelling, told in language that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

I want to write about Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan, a book that didn’t irritate me at all ... maybe later this weekend. Enjoy your Friday!

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Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key

I’m relatively new to the mystery/detective/crime novel genre, but Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key struck me as different from other examples in a number of ways, most particularly in the way we find out so little about the main character, Ned Beaumont. I just finished Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan for a point of comparison, and although Black doesn’t give us reams of information about his hero’s thoughts and feelings, we do get a little insight into how his mind works. But Ned Beaumont remains a mystery; perhaps he’s the central mystery of the book rather than the murder he’s trying to get to the bottom of.

I don’t say he’s investigating this murder because that might be overstating the case, as Beaumont is not a real detective. He has a man working for him who is a real detective, but he himself is a political henchman, working for a corrupt man who backs a corrupt senator. When the senator’s son is murdered, he wants to find out who did it, not to bring the murderer to justice but to clear his friend from suspicion.

So what do we know about Ned Beaumont? (The narrator always calls him by his full name, never just “Ned” or “Beaumont.”) He appeared on the scene (some unnamed city, possibly Baltimore) only a couple years ago from no one knows where. He has a history in New York City, but no one knows what the connection is. He appears to be a handsome man, although we only know this because of the way other characters react to him; the narrator never describes his looks. People like him, although it’s not entirely clear why. He’s got a powerful attachment to Paul Madvig, the man suspected of committing the murder, but we’re not entirely sure what the basis of this attachment is. He seems like a drifter, a man who will float into a city, stay a while, get in some trouble or get bored, and float away somewhere else. Women fall in love with him, but there’s no indication he has any feelings for them at all.

The world Ned Beaumont lives in is thoroughly corrupt, and there’s no hint that things could possibly be otherwise. No one works to clean things up. Instead, we’re given a world full of violence and betrayal. The novel contains a shocking scene where Ned Beaumont ventures into the lair of a competing political operative believing he can trick this man, but instead finds himself brutally beaten up. He tries to escape again and again and each time he is beaten up once again, but he keeps trying and trying until he comes to embody brute determination itself. Even the man chiefly responsible for these beatings comes to admire his tenacity. It’s as though the novel is saying there is nothing to do in a world like this but to keep fighting until you can fight no more.

This description doesn’t sound like the sort of book I’m generally attracted to, and yet I did enjoy it. At least, I enjoyed it once I figured out what was going on. The first 50 pages or so were confusing, with lots of new characters and lots of intrigue. Since the narrator gives so few explanations of what is going on, the reader must do a lot of work to piece the plot together. It’s not always immediately clear which side Ned Beaumont is on, for example, or what he’s setting out to do. But the world Hammett creates is so chillingly well-drawn, so shockingly consistent in its corruption, so ruthless and heartless, that you can’t help but admire it, even as it horrifies you.

I can’t say I’ll be picking up another Hammett novel soon (although if my book club were to choose another one, I would happily read it), but I’m pleased to have gotten a taste of his work and to have a glimpse into the world of hard-boiled crime fiction.

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Weekend report

What a weekend! I don’t think I’ve quite recovered. First, it turns out I didn’t race on Sunday after all. I got about three, maybe three and a half hours of sleep on Saturday night, and I woke up feeling awful. I don’t know about you, but I can’t function on little sleep. I just shut down. On Sunday morning I felt shaky and I knew I wasn’t thinking very quickly and wasn’t capable of good judgment. So I decided to take it easy on myself and sit out this race. The cold temperature and high winds made that decision a little easier.

I did, however, have fun watching the races all morning. Hobgoblin had a great race on the same amount of sleep I got. I have no idea how he does it. I should have been the one out there racing while he took a break because he’d flown in from El Salvador the night before. But anyway, I spent the morning trying to stay warm, chatting with my teammates, and cheering on other racers. Some of my teammates are so enthusiastic about racing and love to talk about their races so much, I can’t help but have fun listening to them.

But I also wanted to tell you about the book club meeting on Saturday. It turned out to be a fabulous time. There were seven of us, and we talked about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key for what must have been at least 2 1/2 or 3 hours; we were there for four hours total and spent a huge chunk of that time focused on the book. Surely it’s unusual for a book group to be that thorough? It is in my rather limited experience at least.

I want to do a separate post on the book later, so I won’t get into the details of our discussion, but we covered so many aspects of it — our reactions to the characters and particularly the enigmatic main character Ned Beaumont, the ways this novel fits into the tradition of crime fiction (which I didn’t have a whole lot to say about, as I’m not that familiar with the genre), and the novel’s take on corruption and politics and its general hopelessness about justice ever being served.

So, I think I’ll learn a ton about mystery novels/detective novels/crime fiction (is there a clear distinction between these terms?) from this group. Next up is Marjery Allingham’s Sweet Danger. She’s an author I’m not familiar with at all, so I’m looking forward to it.

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Notes

You’ll be happy to know I’ve finished my reading for tonight’s book group meeting and am set to head out soon. We’re discussing Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, and I’m curious to see what everyone else makes of it. It’s certainly not my usual sort of reading, but that’s good — it’s what makes book groups interesting. I’ll post on the book later.

Hobgoblin returns from El Salvador tonight; his school group will reach campus at some ungodly hour like 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., so rather than picking him up, I dropped a car off on campus yesterday, bringing my bike along so I could leave the car and ride home. It turned out to be a lovely ride; I lengthened it a little bit so I could stay out for a couple hours and I had a great time in the balmy, almost 50 degree weather.

I’m worried about tomorrow’s race, though — it’s super windy tonight and the wind is supposed to continue into tomorrow morning. The wind was bad enough for the race last week, but it promises to be even worse tomorrow. That will make things interesting. Hobgoblin plans to race, even though he’ll only get a couple hours sleep (the situation is made worse, of course, by the time change which forces us to lose another hour).

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Book groups

I have the chance to participate in a new book group — two new book groups in fact. One of them is a mystery group, whose illustrious members include Emily and Becky from Musings from the Sofa. I’m not starting off with this group very well, though, as the first meeting is Saturday, and I haven’t yet begun the reading. So I’m considering trying to do my relatively slow version of speed reading over the next two days and seeing what I can accomplish. I don’t want to show up with the book unfinished, but I don’t want to miss the occasion either.

So, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, which, fortunately, we happened to have on our shelves, or I would have had to run out to the bookstore this evening. I believe Hobgoblin has read the book before, which means that this isn’t a case of my newly-developed habit of collecting unread books actually paying off, although that would be cool if it were the case.

The other book group a friend from work and I are starting; that one meets in two weeks and we’re reading Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I’m looking forward to it, as I’ve heard so many good things about the book.

But all this reading means I don’t have time to stay and chat. I may stay away from the internet a little more than usual over the next couple days …

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