Monthly Archives: May 2009

Cover Her Face

My mystery book group met again last Friday to discuss P.D. James’s first Dalgliesh novel Cover Her Face. The meetings are always good, but this time was extra special, as Emily made a surprise visit. And we had a fun novel to discuss. I’ve enjoyed James’s Dalgliesh series before, having read or listened to three other of the novels in the series, and I was glad to go back to the beginning.

As far as there ever is a consensus at these meetings, it was that Cover Her Face is a good first effort, well-written, if a little sketchy in the plotting. My feeling was that while I enjoyed it, it didn’t blow me away — as, truthfully, the other James novels didn’t either, but I don’t always need to be blown away. Sometimes it’s just fine to read a competent but not brilliant book.

I was a little surprised to find out how little the book says about her detective Dalgliesh. The later books aren’t terribly forthcoming either, but here there were maybe two or three facts about the character that James offers, the most important being that his wife and first child died a few years earlier. The other fact I remember is that he likes plain English food. Otherwise, all we know about him we have to infer from his words and actions. This does tell us some important things, though — chiefly, that he’s supremely competent, professional, and dispassionate. Interestingly, the book contains no hint of his future career as a poet. Here, he’s all about work and little else. We get hints that he knows something about art and culture, but they are only hints.

The group couldn’t decide whether James was most likely setting up a series here or whether the idea for the series came later, but all this makes me think the idea came later. Most first mysteries in a series do a lot more to set the character up, at least in my limited mystery reading.

As far as the plot goes, it’s standard mystery fare — it takes place on a family estate in a small town in the English countryside; there is a small group of suspects, each with a plausible motive; much of the book is taken up with transcripts of suspect interviews; and it closes with a drawning-room scene where everything is revealed. Not surprisingly for this sort of setting, class issues are a major factor in the plot. The victim is a housemaid, Sally, who had a child out of wedlock, and has become a kind of charity case; she works for the Maxie family who feel that they have taken a risk by hiring her, and the novel opens with everyone on edge, hoping it will work out. But when Sally appears in the same dress as the Maxie daughter, they know that something is wrong, and when she announces her engagement to the Maxie son, their lives are thrown into disorder. The mystery is as much about Sally herself as it is about who killed her — questions about her motivations and her strange behavior drive the plot as much as the murder does.

I’d like to read more Dalgliesh books, because they are enjoyable, but even more so because I’m curious how the series develops. I think it’s an interesting exercise to see how a writer develops over the course of multiple books with the same character, and James has been writing Dalgliesh books for decades (Cover Her Face came out in 1962), so she’d make an interesting study. And I’m interested in seeing how Dalgliesh develops as well. But I didn’t love this book so much that I’m going to rush out and find the rest of them right away. James is somebody to pick up when I’m in the mood for writing that’s predictably, reliably competent, somebody who may not surprise but who probably won’t disappoint either.

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Ireland!

In case you haven’t heard the news from Hobgoblin’s blog, it looks like we’ll be going to Ireland next year! It’s not 100% for sure, but it’s likely enough to get excited about. What happened is that Hobgoblin’s university offers a study abroad option there a couple times a year, and Hobgoblin will have a chance to teach a course as part of the program. The course is two weeks long, and our plan is that I’ll join him for the second week and hang out there while he teaches, and then we’ll spend the following week traveling on our own, perhaps to London and Paris, unless we change our minds and decide to go somewhere else.

Even though we’ve wanted to go to Europe for a while, it was just a vague plan, a nice idea, until this opportunity came up. Not only will Hobgoblin get paid for teaching the course, but his airfare and lodging will be covered, so the trip will cost only my airfare and the cost of the London and Paris trips. The one thing that has to fall into place is that enough students have to register for Hobgoblin’s class, and as long as that happens, we’ll be going. Woo-hoo!

I visited Germany and Switzerland when I was in high school and again in college, but that’s the extent of my European travel, so I’m thrilled to be able to go back. Interestingly enough, the town in Ireland we’ll be visiting is the place where one branch of my family originated. I actually have no idea whether this is my branch of the family or not, as people with my last name come from both England and Ireland, but still the possibility that I’m visiting my roots is pretty exciting. Perhaps it’s time for some genealogical research? Hobgoblin tells me that someone with my last name will have an instant crowd of friends in this particular town — all I’ll have to do, apparently, is tell people my name, and I’ll have people buying me drinks and inviting me over for dinner. It sounds like fun.

We have a whole year to plan, as the trip will be next May, and in the meantime, if anybody has any advice on how to find cheap-but-not-dreadful places to stay in London and Paris, let us know!

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On not reading

This really isn’t a post about not reading, as I do read something every day, if only a few pages before I fall asleep. It’s more about my limits as a reader. As much as I love reading, there are times I just can’t do it, and I also feel like I’m one of the few book lovers out there who feels that way. For me, reading is sort of relaxing, but really, when I’m exhausted and stressed out and trying to unwind, a book doesn’t always help. I wish I were the kind of person who could read all the time, but I’m just not. I have very definite limits on when I can read and for how long.

I’ve been thinking about this lately partly because I’ve been so busy and have had less time and energy for reading, but also because of the recent read-a-thon where people read for 24 hours straight. I admire all you who can read for 24 hours straight, but there’s no way in the world I could ever do that. I couldn’t read for even half that time, and probably not even for a quarter of that time, or maybe even an eighth. I would go stir-crazy. I wouldn’t be able to sit still. I would feel as though I were maxing out on whatever book I was reading. It’s been forever since I read an entire book in a day, and I know I’ve never read two or three. I just don’t like to take in that much at once.

I’m wondering if my tendency to stay away from lighter forms of fiction, generally-speaking, has less to do with my desire to be reading serious stuff all the time, than my habit of reading slowly and wanting books that suit that habit. It’s not worth it to spend an entire week immersed in something forgettable. But I might be willing to read forgettable books if I liked breezing through them in a few hours. Then I might find books better for relaxing, too. If this is true, it would make me feel a little less like a book snob, and more like someone with particular reading habits that just happen to lead to reading particular kinds of books.

I’m not sure if any of that makes sense, but I wanted to say something about how sometimes in the evenings when I have plenty of time to read, I put off picking up a book in favor of staring at the wall or surfing aimlessly online. I feel bad sometimes for not using that time better, but, as with many things I feel bad about, there’s no good reason for it.

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Currently reading

I’m about a third of the way through George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women and am enjoying it immensely. I had little idea of what to expect, except what the title might indicate, and the title could mean a whole range of things. But the “odd” of the title turns out to mean “not even,” as in not part of a couple, or in other words, the problem of the many, many women who have no means of support because they haven’t been trained to support themselves and don’t have a husband or father or some other male to take care of them. There are five women at the novel’s center, three of them sisters who unexpectedly lose their father, who was always intending to save money but never did. These three are left to fend for themselves, without any inkling of how to do this.

The other two women are similarly on their own, but are lucky to have enough money to live independently. They make use of their comfortable position to devote all their time to helping women such as the three sisters get the training they need to find jobs or start businesses for themselves. They also have long conversations about whether women should get married or should refuse marriage in favor of complete independence, and are generally at the forefront of the feminist movement of the time.

There are some odd issues with class in the novel, but so far I’m impressed at how forward-thinking and sympathetic Gissing is about “the woman problem.” I love how open, relatively speaking, the book is about sexuality and marriage and gender dynamics, and also about money and work. I’m also pleased that I’m reading this book right after finishing a Barbara Pym novel, since Pym also writes about a version of “the woman problem,” in her case, about the uncertain social role of single and married women after World War II.

As for other books I’m reading, I finally finished The Recognitions! I’m very pleased about this. I feel as though I should write a wrap-up post about the book, and I may do it at some point, but the truth is, I don’t really feel up to it. I’d feel as though I needed to write something smart about it, and I don’t have the energy to try to sound smart right now. At any rate, I’m glad I read the book, and I’m also glad it’s over.

So for now I’m sticking to two books, the Gissing novel, and the complete Montaigne, which I recently picked back up again after ignoring it for a month or two. I’m contemplating starting another nonfiction book, but I’m wary of taking on what might come to feel like too much. I’ve been so busy, and although my schedule is easing up a bit, I’ll still be busy for a while, and I’d prefer to have fewer books on the go, so I can focus what reading time I have a bit better.

But, I may feel tempted … I’ve considered picking up Ann Fadiman’s At Large and At Small, or perhaps one of the several science books I own, or maybe a Richard Holmes biography. We’ll see.

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Barbara Pym’s An Academic Question

Barbara Pym’s novel An Academic Question turned out to be an interesting read for unexpected reasons. I didn’t realize this when I first picked up the book, but it’s an unfinished novel, written and abandoned in the early 1970s, that editor Hazel Holt pieced together and published in 1986. It’s not unfinished in the sense that it doesn’t have an ending; rather, Pym never finished revising it to her satisfaction. Holt writes that Pym’s first draft was written in the first person, and she was in the process of changing it into the third person but was unhappy with the results. Here’s how Holt describes her editing process:

In preparing this novel for publication I have amalgamated these two drafts, also making use of some notes that she made and consulting the original handwritten version, trying to ‘smooth’ them (to use Barbara’s word) into a coherent whole.

This is all we know about how this particular version of the novel came into existence; there are no further notes about what changes Holt made or what sections came from which draft. The novel Holt published keeps the first person voice.

I enjoyed reading the book, but I think ultimately it’s best for committed Pym fans, not for someone who is just getting to know her work, because it’s clear it’s a rough draft. There are sections that feel rushed and unpolished, with some abrupt transitions and scenes and characters that seem to come out of nowhere.

But the themes the book explores are interesting and are similar to those of Excellent Women, the other Pym novel I’ve read. The story is about a “graduate wife,” a term which makes me think of a graduate student wife, but refers — I think — to a woman with a college degree who isn’t making use of it because she’s married. The heroine, Helen, has a child but isn’t particularly interested in her and would kind of like to do something more with herself and her education, but at the same time, she isn’t terribly ambitious. She’s adrift, considering taking a part-time job like many other wives she knows, but she’s less than thrilled with the available possibilities. She could help her university professor husband with his research, maybe do some typing, but her husband does his own typing and never seems to want assistance.

She ends up getting involved in her husband’s research anyway, though, in an entirely unexpected manner — while visiting an elderly man in a nursing home, she comes across a stash of papers that would help her husband publish the article that could make his career. How she obtains these papers, what she and her husband do with them, and the intrigues they lead the characters into form the basis of the plot.

What makes the book interesting, though, is the world it describes — the academic world generally and women’s place within it. And — no surprise — it’s very much a man’s world. There are female professors, but their personal lives are complicated and most people have trouble seeing them as fully feminine. Faculty wives spend their time doing their husband’s typing, doing good deeds such as Helen’s visits to the elderly, and working part-time in genteel and not too demanding jobs, such as doing filing in the library.

Nobody seems interested in challenging this status quo, including Helen herself, who feels a vague unhappiness with her life but isn’t ready to do anything about it. She’s no rebellious spirit, and she’s not the type to think methodically and analytically about what she’s experiencing. But while Helen offers no direct critique of this stultifying world, Pym illustrates the consequences indirectly, in Helen’s uneasiness and dissatisfaction with her life and her marriage. Although there’s a whole series of funny scenes and a collection of comic characters, the mood of the book is darker than that; there’s an atmosphere of hopelessness and ennui that never fully dispells. Conflicts may find resolution and relationships may heal, but life is never exciting and nothing really new happens.

I’ve only read two Pym novels so far, one of which is definitely not her best work, but these two books strike me as similar in theme and mood. I’ve got more Pym books on my shelves (No Fond Return of Love and Jane and Prudence), and I’m curious to see if this pattern continues.

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