It’s time for another instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do. If you needed any further evidence that my reading habits are all over the map, this one should do it. Here’s why I’m doing this.
Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective (Agatha Christie, 1932).Agatha Christie’s Parker Pyne short stories are a little strange – Pyne isn’t really a detective, and there often isn’t a crime. Instead, Pyne is a sort of happiness consultant, fixing boredom and other assorted malaises for his clients. Like most of what Christie wrote, these stories are clever, tightly constructed, and very satisfying – when they aren’t stained by her really quite awful class snobbery and racism. The racism in particular ruins the second story in this book, and it’s hard to know how to read the remaining ones with that loaded into short-term memory. I suppose it’s a bit like viewing Picasso’s paintings of women, or for that matter reading Shakespeare; but for some reason it bothered me more in this volume than in Christie’s other books. Maybe there’s a reason this one is apparently out of print. But there’s an interesting issue here. It would take a reasonably modest amount of editing to “fix” this book. Normally, I’d recoil from expurgated versions, especially given the extremely slippery slope they represent. But in this case it would do no violence to the stories; the racist tropes are incidental to the story. It would feel like picking up the dog turds in an otherwise enjoyable park; and yet I just can’t see myself picking up a bowdlerized Agatha Christie. But why not? I don’t know.
Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements (Hugh Aldersey-Williams, 2011). You’ve probably noticed the rarity of non-fiction in #AYearOfBooks. I know, there’s loads of great non-fiction out there (I even wrote some of it). But I read so much science all day that when I’m off, I usually crave lighter fare. But Periodic Tales was a treat. It’s a smorgasbord of stories about the chemical elements, from actinium to zirconium – not just facts about their physics and chemistry, but stories about their occurrence in the world around us: in technology, in art, in literature, in culture, in geography. I’ve actually been reading it in parallel with other books for the last couple of month, and it works well that way. When I was writing Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, my editor pushed me to make the book have a “through line”: a single underlying point or question. I resisted because I very much enjoy books that don’t have simple through lines – that can be dipped into for many smaller amusements. Periodic Tales is one such. I learned a thousand small things, but not (I think) one large one. That’s very much OK with me.
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Diana Gabaldon, 2005) I’ve been enjoying my voyage through the long, long Outlander series of time-travel historical romances; this is #6 of 8 (so far). At a thousand pages each, more or less, reading this series isn’t quite the century-spanning commitment of Claire Randall to Jamie Fraser… but it’s close. Fortunately, the stories and the characters are so gripping they keep you going even when the plot occasionally sags under the weight of a thousand interwoven strands. I haven’t mentioned this before, but usually when I’m reading an Outlander book I’m not reading it straight through; instead, I interrupt the saga to read something else. In between chapters of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, I read Periodic Tales (above) and the first two books of the Chronicles of Prydain (below). Does anyone else do this?
Chronicles of Prydain (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King) (Lloyd Alexander, 1964-1968). This series is an oddity for me: a fantasy series for children that was available (and winning awards) when I was the age for it, but that I somehow managed to miss. So I had to discover it through my own son. He now, I suspect, fancies himself too old for it; but I do not. This is a charming and funny series of epic-fantasy-in-miniature, centering on Taran, a boy who is Assistant Pig-Keeper but dreams of being much more, and Eilonwy, a girl who – well, who thoroughly steals the show. The series covers a lot of ground quickly and can feel a bit frenetic at times, but the characters are lovable even when they’re being exasperating. There are (at least) two major themes, and if neither is particularly novel, both are timeless and important: first, the heroism in everyday people; and second, the stubborn refusal of people to fit into the tidy little “good” and “bad” boxes we’d like to make for them. From the second book: “It is easy to judge evil unmixed…but alas, in most of us good and bad are closely woven as the threads on a loom; greater wisdom than mind is needed for the judging”. This message is unfashionable today, and that’s sad.
Daniel (Henning Mankell, 2000). This is the second time I’ve tried to like Henning Mankell’s books, and it’s my second failure. The first was with his Wallander mysteries; I real a lot of mysteries of many subgenres, but Mankell’s are just too stiff and bleak for me. I was drawn to Daniel by something I admit is a niche interest: it opens with Hans Bengler leaving Sweden for Africa (in the 1870s) with the intent of discovering a new species of insect and naming it after himself. (Yes, you can do that; yes, someone occasionally does; and yes, I examine the practise in my own book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.) But Bengler and his entomological ego aren’t really the focus; instead, it’s the young and orphaned San boy he adopts and brings home to Sweden. This novel is dark – stubbornly, bleakly, and repetitively so, and to my taste without much of a redeeming message. Well, unless it’s that one shouldn’t treat a child as an object to be displayed – but if there are people who need to read novels to understand that (and sadly, there are), they seem unlikely to do so. Some folks love Mankell’s books; but I’m ready to accept that I’m not one of them.
Grounds for Murder (Kate Kingsbury, 1995). Can a murder mystery be light and frothy? Well, this one sure tries, as a deranged serial killer operates around a seaside hotel in Edwardian England. But far more pages are devoted to Edwardian mores and the incessant bickering of servant with servant and guest with guest than are devoted to the actual mystery. (The mystery is indeed solved, although rather arbitrarily and almost in passing.) Somewhat astonishingly, there are 21 novels in this series; someone other than me will have to report on whether the others have any more meat on their bones.
This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart (Madhur Anand, 2020). This is a memoir of sorts, the story of a couple immigrating from Punjab to Canada at the time of Partition, and of their daughter’s life as a scientist and poet. But that sentence didn’t do its complexity justice. It’s a wonderful book: lyrical, equal parts familiar and surprising. It’s really a novel-length poem, or maybe a poem-structured novel, with the twist of being (one presumes) mostly true. I was particularly struck by the knitting together of perspectives from science and art – for example, an extended metaphor about symmetry-breaking in physics and in life. I’ll have more to say about this book separately; it’s worthy of a full blog post on its own. But don’t wait for that – read this book.
The Book of Madness and Cures (Regina O’Melveny, 2013). The story of a young Venetian woman in the 1590s, a herbalist and doctor, traveling across Europe and northwest Africa in search of her father. This was fascinating and atmospheric. Gabriella (or Dotoressa Mondini) visits Leiden, Edinburgh, Montpellier, Tangier, and further south, always chasing signs of her father in his letters. There’s plenty of period detail (among the new vocabulary I learned: farthingale, the framework that gave a hoop skirt its form; the English word is a corruption of Spanish verdugado, meaning ‘made of sticks’). What there isn’t is the annoying attempts at overelaborated period speech that can make historical novels close to unreadable (cough, cough, Master and Commander). This one was a great read.
As many parts of the world move into more restrictive pandemic measures, I suspect books will be important to a lot of people. At least, I hope so. Perhaps my list will find you a new favourite. Stay safe.
© Stephen Heard Nov 24, 2020
Looks like there will be just one more instalment to finish out the year. Did you miss the first six? Need some books to read (and a few to avoid)? Here’s the first, and here’s the second, here’s the third, here’s the fourth, here’s the fifth, and here’s the sixth.
Image: Bookshelves CC 0 via Pickpick.com