Weekend Miscellany: Books, Music, and Sunshine

There are crocuses up, the Public Gardens are opening Wednesday, and I bought fries and sat outside the public library to eat them this afternoon: it’s official, spring is here. What a relief. It wasn’t a particularly severe winter, by east coast standards, but it was still tough enough for this recovering Vancouverite. Being on sabbatical definitely made it less stressful than usual, though. If it were an option, I’d happily teach two of my five courses in the spring and summer sessions as a regular thing and use winters as my research terms. I could hibernate with my books, and then emerge, refreshed, into the sunshine and share that restored energy with my students! But this year, at any rate, I’ll just be sharing it with … well … you! And with my friends at OLM, when I trek down to Boston for our editorial summit and general festivities in May.

I have been doing some fairly miscellaneous reading in the last few days. After finishing Noah’s Compass, I picked out the first volume in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wreath. I wasn’t swept up into it in quite the way I expected to be, but as I read on and also read a bit about the series, I realize that my expectations were not quite right (this seems to be happening to me a lot lately!). I thought it would be more sweeping, more melodramatic, maybe, or epic. Instead, it is quietly lyrical in its descriptive passages but otherwise more direct emphatic than poetic or emotional–except in some of the more heated dialogue, when characters are often described as “screaming,” which shocks me every time because that’s just not the register things have been proceeding in. Not that there’s not plenty of action in the novel, but it just happens in very direct, almost blunt, way, so that when something really shocking happens (like attempted rape, or someone being urged, successfully, to stab herself to death!)  it’s particularly shocking because it’s just there, happening. I’m not explaining this very well, am I? There’s something of the same flatness in the prose style that is striking in the Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read recently, and again I wonder whether it’s the effect of translation, or an effect of a different set of literary traditions and conventions that affects the tone. It’s also winter a lot in this book, as in the Beck mysteries–but at least here spring does come! I was surprised at the sexual directness of the story. I’m going to move on to the second and third ones soon and then write them all up in a bit more detail.

I’ve also been working through Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature. I was considering reviewing it for Open Letters, but the prospect of writing about this book in any detail makes me tired and irritable. I didn’t dislike it as much as William Deresiewicz did, but my marginal notes have a lot in common with the ones he rattles off in the first paragraph of his stinging review at Slate. It’s rambling, occasionally charming, occasionally extremely tedious, and always strangely evasive; its conclusions are vaporously insubstantial and wholly unrevelatory. I’m starting to think it’s a mistake for anyone to generalize about “literature.” The effusive blurbage on the volume also adds substantially to my cynicism about the publishing business (or at least its marketing side). I’m just not sure it’s worth my weighing in on it: I don’t think it really deserves much attention, well-intentioned and sincere as it clearly is, and I’m not sure what I in particular could add to it, or to discussion of it.

I realized that I have read shockingly little Victorian fiction since my sabbatical began, and one of my ambitions for some time has been to fill in some obvious gaps, so I’ve started Our Mutual Friend. (I did read this once before, but long ago–for my own undergraduate Victorian fiction course, in fact–and I barely remember it, despite having written my term paper on it. “Archipelagos of Meaning: Language in Our Mutual Friend.” Thanks for asking.) It’s interesting how strange and experimental Dickens’s language seems after reading a lot of contemporary novels. As book ordering deadlines for the fall term loom, I’m also wondering if I should shake up my reading list for my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ which I’ve done with the same reading list several times. The novel I’m thinking of mixing in is Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower, but I’ve never read it (only about it), so I probably should do that before I go commiting myself! Any other suggestions?

I also need to make decisions about the detective fiction class, so now I’m reading Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, which so far I am really impressed with. If I do add it, I think I’d back off switching to The Big Sleep and stick with The Maltese Falcon, though, as I don’t think I want to be teaching three new books in the second half of the term. If I go through with my plan to assign one of the Martin Beck series, I still have to decide which one; I found the last two in at the library this afternoon, so I’ll read them and then make up my mind. I’ve been struggling to find an anthology for the class that includes all the short fiction I want. I’ve used the Longman anthology for a couple of years but it was not popular with students and included a fair amount of secondary reading which I don’t tend to assign. I thought I’d switch back to the Oxford Book of Detective Fiction, but I notice it does not include any Poe (??)–I guess I can link to online sources, but when you use an anthology, it would be nice if it had all the readings you wanted in it! There’s a cute little Everyman ‘pocket’ anthology that’s not a bad choice but why are the contents in reverse chronological order? Once upon a time I used a nice little Penguin book of classic crime fiction that suited perfectly, but of course it’s not available anymore. I think the Oxford is the winner, partly because it has a good selection of recent and international stories.

Finally, I just got Jill Barber’s new album, Mischievous Moon, on iTunes and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I also thoroughly enjoyed Chances. It’s not a sound for everyone (my husband doesn’t like her voice at all), but I love the retro vibe, the melodies, the husky voice, the whole sensibility. If you like a little something gently jazzy to go with your glass of wine after dinner, I highly recommend either one.

One thought on “Weekend Miscellany: Books, Music, and Sunshine

  1. Annie April 11, 2011 / 1:42 pm

    Somewhere on the Blackwell’s shelves, yesterday I cam across a book specifically about Scandinavian crime fiction and like the idiot I am I didn’t think to jot down the title. Do you know of one or is it worth my while doing a search to see if I can find it?

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