That last post on my grandmother turned out to be a bigger project than I anticipated when it crossed my mind to do it–rounding up the scrapbook and letters, then scanning some of the old pictures. It was fun, though fun of the inevitably bittersweet kind that comes from remembering someone very dear. Once it was finally ready to post on Thursday, I had run myself out of time for that night, and then came a run of other distractions so that really all weekend I hardly got any reading done: Friday I spent doing some spring cleaning and cooking in preparation for having a few friends over, then I hauled myself out of bed on Saturday earlier than was entirely desirable (not that we’d been drinking wine or anything…) because Owen had to report by 8:30 for the Math Olympiad (where he and his partner handily came first in Grade 8). Saturday night my husband and Maddie arrived home from a week in Florida, so there was a lot of catching up to do–including the shows saved up on the DVR! More miscellaneous activity on Sunday, including various errands in preparation for my own trip this week, to Boston–so still not much reading. Not last night either, as Owen was performing in the Kiwanis Festival Gala Concert–where his newest piano composition, “Hypnotic Suggestion,” had its world premiere.
Yesterday I was back in the office for a few hours, though, and I finished up The Locked Room, which was the last of the Martin Beck books I hadn’t yet read. I’m working on a short piece about these books for another purpose, so I won’t go into detail about it here except to say that this one is particularly clever in its engagement with one of the classic mystery puzzles–you could do a whole paper, or at least a lengthy riff, on the significant differences between this particular locked room case and those in other kinds of detective stories. The other thing of particular note is that The Locked Room contains by far the funniest chapter in all 10 books, a unique combination of slapstick comedy and violent mayhem. Are there any laugh-out-loud funny chapters in Henning Mankell’s books? Not in the two I’ve read. I’ve set myself a perverse little challenge for the piece I’m writing on the Beck books, which is to see if I can write the whole piece without any references to either Mankell or Stieg Larsson–or, for that matter, to “Scandinavian” or Nordic crime fiction as a general category. Sure, there’s a bandwagon right there, but that doesn’t mean I have to jump on it! I want to see if I can talk about the books looking straight at them instead of treating them as antecedents or precedents. [That said, if you want a great link round-up for recent reviews in or on this territory, check out the Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog.]
I’m about half way through Vera Brittain’s A Testament of Friendship and, primed by Carolyn Heilbrun’s introduction as well as a lot of Brittain’s own remarks, finding it really engaging as a portrait of women’s friendship that has no truck with the cliches about competition, cattiness, or jealousy that make up the usual tropes for such stories. I was interested to find Brittain opening it by invoking Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. That relationship, and that biography, are now seen as more problematic than they clearly seemed to Brittain: some have read Gaskell as (accidentally) revealing antagonism or rivalry towards Brontë, for instance, and even if you take her to be sincerely defending her friend, there are moments when you wonder if she’s really doing Charlotte any favours by contextualizing her ‘coarseness’ in order to excuse it, rather than rejecting that entire conversation as inappropriate. I wonder if anyone has reread Brittain’s account of Holtby as being not altogether friendly after all. After I finish the book, I will peer around. I don’t see any reason to bring a hermeneutics of suspicion to it, myself: so far, certainly the aspect of it that I like most is what appears to be a wholly sincere and generous spirit of admiration. Thinking about the rarity of representing female friendship has also prompted me to think more about my own friends and what they have meant to me, which is a lot.
The other book I have on the go is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, despite all the positive press and awards and so forth, but I was peering at it in the store and had a gift card in my pocket, and you can predict the rest. A couple of chapters in, I’m liking it fine, though I have yet to discover why people think it is quite so special–but two chapters is hardly decisive. It will be my airplane reading en route to Boston. No point packing any more books, though, because one of the first places I’ve been promised by my cruise director for this trip is the Brattle Bookshop–which sounds like the sort of place I will be lucky to escape with fewer than five additions to my TBR pile. I believe we are also stopping in at the Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center, and there may be an expedition to the Trident Booksellers and Cafe as well.
Clearly, I’m in a kind of limbo period here with my reading and writing. Luckily, there are others who can offer you more substance and provocation than I can right now. For instance, over at Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader finally got around to Gaskell’s North and South. There’s a little grumbling at first, but as always, he has astute and unexpected ideas about what makes the novel interesting and sometimes even excellent as well. At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove convinces me I should give Willa Cather a try, writes thoughtfully about what critics do all day, and responds to Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women:
I was sorry to see Staal’s tendency to dismiss the latter stages of her course because they were more theoretically demanding, less obviously relevant to her own experience. I’ve always found them some of the most compelling parts. And come on, girls! Are we really going to wimp out here just because something is hard? Absolutely not. If feminism is going to come good on all its hopes, there is still tough work to be done deep in the hearts and minds of women, where perfectionism, compulsive compliance, guilt, responsibility and self-esteem create some pretty toxic combinations. That’s a feminism course I’d love to teach myself. But in the meantime, to catch up on the history of feminism to this point, I thoroughly recommend Stephanie Staal’s book.
Teresa at Shelf Love writes about writing about books, including a number of links worth following up; Annie at Senior Common Room has a very interesting post on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth; at the New Yorker’s Book Bench, the ‘Ask an Academic’ feature addresses boredom (the work under discussion as well as its author’s anticipated next project, on sentimentality, reflects a trend I have observed to do studies, not of things or substances, which were trendy for a while, but abstractions or concepts–I have a colleague working on a book about ‘grace,’ for instance). There are lots more interesting posts out there but I have to get back to organizing for my trip! I don’t expect to be posting here while I’m away, but there may be the occasional Twitter update.
And, yes, you should give Willa Cather a try, says someone who has read only one Cather book, and needs to give more of them a try.
Have a nice trip.
Be sure to read Virginia Woolf’s polite letter to Brittain re T of F and her scathing criticism of it in a letter to Ethel Smyth.
I do hope you are having a lovely time in Boston – that’s a place I would love to visit. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of Jennifer Egan. I’ve picked that book up and then put it down again in the bookstore more times than I care to count. And thank you for the links – that made my day!
AR: It was a great trip, thanks!
Elizabeth: I’ll look for that, definitely. One of the books I bought on my trip was Terry Castle’s The Professor, which turns out to include a whole riff on Vera Brittain including some comments of Woolf’s. When I’m back in action here, I’ll put them up.
LL: Boston was wonderful. I had no idea it was such a beautiful city, and so green. I’m almost finished the Egan. I don’t know if I’ll blog about it. I guess I should say something. At this point (and admittedly I’m not finished, quite, so perhaps everything comes together somehow) I’m not getting all the excitement. Stylish, confident, evocative of times and places, good at characterization–but I’m not finding the binding idea, or feeling the importance of it all. Maybe I expect too much.