Book Chat

This semester I teach Tuesday afternoon and on into the evening until 8:30 and then again on Wednesday morning (and I teach Monday and Thursday, too, but those days are easier), and I’m realizing today just how taxing that schedule can be.  So far this semester I haven’t actually had to teach a full week because snow days always got me out of it, but now I’ve done it and my brain is shot.  So I thought I’d just chat a bit here before I turn to my books.

I’ve been meaning to write about Peter Ackroyd’s The Lambs of London, but I’m not sure I’ll get around to it.  It’s been a couple weeks since I finished it, and I’ve lost the sense of urgency to write about it and don’t have a strong sense of what I want to say.  I didn’t love the book, although I wanted to.  It’s historical fiction about Charles and Mary Lamb and their obsession with Shakespeare, and that sounds fun.  But the book never quite grabbed my attention or captured my imagination or made me care all that much.  I think I wanted a little more narrative tension, and the characters always felt a little bit unreal.  Which is odd, since many of them were really real.  Perhaps this is often a problem with historical fiction that turns real people into characters? I imagine it would be very hard to turn their real lives into an interesting plot for a novel and to make up enough about the people to ensure they are strong characters without violating what we know about the real people’s lives.

Those of you who know Ackroyd’s work, is The Lambs of London typical?  Are his other books better/worse?

I’ve begun reading Dorothy Sayers’s book Gaudy Night for my mystery book group, and while I’m only a little ways in, it’s turning out to be such a fun book.  I do like reading about Oxford and all its odd people and interesting traditions, and Harriet Vane is a great character — she’s a successful mystery novelist with some experience as a potential suspect herself, and she now has Lord Peter Wimsey pursuing her in search of a romantic relationship.  She can’t quite decide how she feels about this.  I haven’t gotten to the crime yet, but surely something will happen soon …

I think I’ll go find out!


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life, Teaching

15 responses to “Book Chat

  1. I have a hard time reading about real people turned into fictional characters as well. Sometimes the story just doesn’t ring true for me–not that I necessarily know what that person would have been like in real life, but it can be hard to imagine them in aritifical settings. I’ve never read anything about The Lambs–wasn’t there some sort of murder or crime in their family? And glad you’re liking Gaudy Night–that is one mystery I would love to reread and Harriet Vine is such a great character!


  2. The poor woman murders her mother with a knife and Ackroyd can’t come up with a credible plot? In fairness, Charles Lamb was himself a celibate accountant who went out to dinner a lot, which is not so exciting. He incidentally wrote a series of the finest essays in the English language (try “Dream Children”), but that probably does not help the story much.

    Ackroyd’s “Hawksmoor”, about London architecture and a serial killer, has a very strong plot.


  3. The Lambs of London is not a favorite of mine either. I think whenever novelists try to posit entirely fictional events involving real-life people, it just doesn’t quite work. (This is why I have no interest in reading Drood.) To be fair, I haven’t read enough about the Lambs to know that a similar incident to what is described in this book didn’t happen, but the narrative just smacked of artifice. For historical fiction, I vastly prefer books about entirely fictional people or fictionalized accounts of real events.

    And, oh, Gaudy Night, that’s one of my top 10 books and a favorite comfort read.


  4. I love “Gaudy Night.” I look forward to hearing your take on it when you get to the end. I must read more Sayers. I began with the three that include Harriet Vane and I liked her so much that I had difficulty afterwards settling down to any of the novels in which Lord Wimsey detects solo. Perhaps it’s time I gave them another go.


  5. I feel for you with that schedule. It’s tough working late one night and then having to be back on again in the morning. Glad you took a night off with the books!

    I loved Gaudy Night, it’s just delightful. I haven’t read The Lambs of London, but I did read and enjoy Ackroyd’s Chatterton and also his novel First Light. This being said, I was in my early twenties when I read them so I guess my feelings could have changed in the meantime. I ought to try him again and see!


  6. verbivore

    Your schedule does sound hectic, hopefully you can take advantage of the down time that you do have and find ways to stock energy for the busy middle of the week!

    My parents absolutely love Dorothy Sayers and can have involved discussions about the relationship between Vane and Whimsey. I’ve never read any of them, but have been tempted. I’ll wait and see what you think when you’ve finished – so do tell!


  7. I was so disappointed in The Lambs of London that I’ve not been interested in Peter Ackroyd’s other works.

    Sayer’s Lord Peter novels are fun…and so is the BBC series based on the books.


  8. Oh no! I have Lambs of London in a book pile somewhere. Am I bound to be disappointed by it?

    And that sounds like a hard class schedule this semester. I don’t suppose you will get lucky enough to have any additional snow days?


  9. It sounds like I liked Lambs of London more than most people–I found the whole Shakespeare hoax storyline fascinating. I think part of the problem is Charles Lamb himself–hard to give him dialogue that isn’t stilted or boring. I felt a certain detachment when I read the book, and I figured that had more to do with the Lambs as characters than Ackroyd as a storyteller. I really enjoyed his Shakespeare bio as well as his Dickens bio (though I lost I lot of respect for Dickens whilst reading it!), and I read parts of the London bio also. I tried to read The Clerkenwell Tales but found it so deadly dull that I gave up in exasperation. I actually think Ackroyd is better as a non-fiction writer than a fiction writer.


  10. Sarah

    I love Gaudy Night as well! Look forward to hearing what you think.


  11. I read Ackroyd’s Chatterton and The House of Doctor Dee years ago and loved them. I was a bit disappointed in the Lambs of London, (I wanted more about the Lambs) but enjoyed The Clerkenwell Tales and The Fall of Troy – I like Ackroyd’s fiction. I have his biography of Shakespeare which I keep meaning to read!

    Oh, and Gaudy Night I loved too.


  12. Danielle — Mary Lamb was mentally unstable and killed her mother by stabbing her. Horrible story! I’d like to know more about the family — the novel was a start, but I’d like to read nonfiction about them. And yes, I’m loving Gaudy Night — I’ll have to read the other Harriet Vane books now.

    Amateur Reader — well, he’s got all the elements of a good plot, but it just doesn’t get terribly exciting. Something about it just doesn’t work. I’ve read a few of Lamb’s essays and have a copy of Essays of Elia I’m looking forward to reading one of these years.

    Teresa — I bet it’s one of those strange things about real life and fiction that it’s very hard to make real life seem believable. Not impossible, but hard. I think overall I prefer the kind of historical fiction you describe too.

    Kate — I’m nearing the halfway point of the novel, and so far so good. I love all the conversations Harriet has about how hard it is for women to figure out the career/family choice or whether it is possible to have a balance. And the Peter Wimsey courtship is charming. I’ll definitely have to go back and read the first couple Harriet Vane novels.

    Eva — I’m loving it too!

    Litlove — yeah, I was wondering if Ackroyd might not have done a better job in his other books. It’s not that Lambs of London is a bad book; I just hoped for more. I might prefer to try his nonfiction.

    Verbivore — I’m certain I’ll have a good report to give. I’m reading it for my mystery book club, and I’m sure most if not all of them will like it too. There’s just so much to enjoy.

    Jenclair — glad to hear it’s not just me! If someone I trust tells me they love his other novels, I might give them a try, but I’m guessing this author is just not for me. Oh, well!

    Stefanie — well, I prefer not having snow days, actually, as they get my syllabus all messed up. It’s nice to have a day off, but also a pain. And who knows, you might really love Ackroyd — don’t let me prejudice you against it!

    JaneGS — interesting to hear that Ackroyd might be a better nonfiction writer. I felt the same sense of lifelessness you describe. Those two people are fascinating, but very difficult to work with as fictional subjects, it seems.

    Sarah — So far so good with Gaudy Night — it’s such a fun book. I’m glad it’s on the longish side, so I can enjoy it for a while.

    BooksPlease — Perhaps it’s the case that I didn’t pick up his best book. That’s too bad. And it’s not as though I hated it, just that it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.


  13. The Lambs of London is actually the only Ackroyd book I’ve read so far. I’ve wanted to read Milton in America and London, but haven’t yet. I really enjoyed Lambs and it got me interested in the bizarre and engrossing family.


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