It’s not that I haven’t read anything except Gift From the Sea recently, though you might think so from the dearth of book blogging going on over here. If you peer at the summer reading tally on the right, you’ll see a few more titles on either side — but I haven’t written them up! Distraction, laziness, and humidity are to blame, along with Season I of Homeland, which we have just begun watching (so there go the evening hours in which I usually do my book blogging). If any of these books had mattered to me a lot, of course, I would have done better. But that’s not to say they aren’t good books and enjoyable reads, so I thought I could at least review them briefly here.
I finally followed up on recommendations (especially from Dorian) that I give Tana French a try, and I’m definitely glad I did. Without those recommendations, I might have stayed away, because the subgenre she writes in is less police procedural than psychological suspense / thriller, which is not usually my thing. Also, In the Woods begins with terrifying things happening to small children, and even in police procedurals that’s my least favorite trope. It’s hard enough being a parent without stocking my overactive imagination with vanishingly unlikely “what if” scenarios! But In the Woods is smart and well-told as is its sequel, The Likeness (which I wrote up briefly at GoodReads). I enjoyed these two well enough that I picked up Faithful Place and Broken Harbor the last time I was at the public library. I don’t think I’ll be adding French to the syllabus for either of my mystery courses, though: so far, her books are good examples of their kind but don’t strike me as otherwise ground-breaking or thematically resonant in any way that would support class discussion.
Now that I’ve made friends with Georgette Heyer, I am gradually working my way through her catalogue. I’m trying not to binge, partly because I don’t think I could take all that much of her at once, but also because one binge per summer seems like quite enough. I read Arabella very happily on the flight home from Vancouver, and picked out Black Sheep as my next one based on the number of people who recommended it here and on Twitter. And it was thoroughly enjoyable! Liz was right about the “great hero.” It was also a bit sexier than the other Heyers I’ve read so far. My only quibble was the way the hero masterminded the “elopement” at the end — I prefer my heroines to make their own decisions more deliberately. But that’s a pretty small quibble, considering that Abby is perfectly happy about it all. Next up will probably be Cotillion, or maybe Sprig Muslin.
I just reread The Big Sleep because I finally swapped out The Maltese Falcon for Mystery & Detective Fiction, and with that behind me I turned my attention to seeking out possible new books for the Women & Detective Fiction seminar in the winter term (I have until October, I think, before I have to order the books). As previously mentioned, one of my goals is diversifying the reading list, which has so far always been pretty much WASP-Anglo-American-straight. One new title already ordered is Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar: there’s a strong tradition now of lesbian detective fiction and when I read this one a couple of years ago I thought it did a good job making sexual politics a significant part of the story and theme. I’ve been trying now to find a book that will put race on the table — but it’s turning out to be tricky to figure out what’s in print, and then, of what’s available, what will work well in class. As far as I can tell, for instance, none of Barbara Neely’s novels are currently available to order, and the same seems to be true of the early Eleanor Taylor Bland titles. I just took a look at a couple of Paula L. Woods’s Charlotte Justice novels and didn’t much like them — but that may not end up being a good enough argument against them. I As always, suggestions welcome: it’s very time-consuming sifting through bibliographies (on and off line) or lists of recommendations and trying to collate them with ordering information to rule out the unavailable ones. Walter Mosley has been a great addition to the general survey course, bringing into focus a lot of assumptions about justice and law in our other readings — and Devil in a Blue Dress is also sharp and stylistically interesting. I admit that in my frustration about finding something to do the same for the Women & Detective Fiction class, I started wondering about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as an option … is that just a terrible idea? There are some pretty interesting critical articles about its (controversial) presentation of Africa in general and African women more particularly. But it does seem a cop-out (pun sort of intended).
I’m about half way through my reread of Adam Bede, which I will be writing about for Open Letters for the September issue. I had some idea of doing that essay for the August issue, but between work things, revisions on the Dick Francis essay, and a delightfully large number of submissions to me for the next OLM, there won’t be anything from me in it. I’m loving Adam Bede, though, and wondering why I haven’t ever assigned it for an undergraduate class. Maybe next year!
I’m also about half way through Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures. I’m not in love with it at this point but it has many interesting aspects, not least among them the high degree of neepery about art and book restoration. More about this one when I’ve finished it.
And last but not least, I sent out an S.O.S. to Steve about my shocking lack of John D. MacDonald titles, and thanks to him I’m finally getting acquainted with Travis McGee. We’ll see how I get along with him. In the first book I’m trying, Darker than Amber, I’m a bit put off by his making love to an emotionally distraught friend despite her making sounds of “half sleepy objection.” It’s OK, though, really, because “when the sudden awareness that it was working for her brought her wide awake she was too far along to choke herself off with all those anxieties [her ex] had built” — and the therapeutic sex sends her happily off to sleep. Hmm. But not every friend makes a great first impression, right?
Update: A Twitter call for suggestions for the Women & Detective seminar has yielded some good ideas: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, Margaret Millar’s Tom Aragon series, Sara Paretsky’s Hardball … Ideally I’d like a book by a woman author about a woman detective — that helps us keep certain continuities in our class discussions and assignments. But I’d certainly consider other configurations if the book was the right one, so I’m going to follow up on all of these. I’m starting with The Cutting Season, though, as it sounds really interesting and is by a black woman author and has a female protagonist.
Ooo, I need to read another Georgette Heyer book. I was rationing her books to myself as well, just because they’re so sweet and fun I didn’t want to gobble them up all at once. But it’s high time for another one.
I loved the restoration aspects of The Sixteen Pleasures! It was the kind of book I wished Barbara Michaels had written, because she’s always a lot of fun around very particular worlds, and her mysteries are also funny and charming. The surrounding plot of The Sixteen Pleasures bored me, and I kept wishing I could skip those parts and just learn about restoring old things.
Jenny, I’ve just finished The Sixteen Pleasures and I couldn’t agree more.
I guess I like Tana French a little more than you do. (When I think of writers whom I’d most like to have something new to read by, I think of French and Sarah Waters.) I could imagine French being interesting in a class like yours as a way of thinking about the relationship between genre fiction and “literary” fiction. But maybe you have other texts that do that, or aren’t particularly interested in that question. I could also image a text like Rebecca working well to think about how detection (both by characters and by readers) works in a text that isn’t, ostensibly, about a detective.
I really don’t equate not wanting to teach with not liking — I thought both books were very good! But that’s not the same thing as being able to see how they’d bear up as assigned texts in a seminar. You’re right about raising the genre / “literary” fiction question — but most books we’ll be reading do this one way or another. And though I can imagine someone else approaching the course quite differently, I’ve avoided books like Rebecca that really aren’t detective novels in order to focus on variations within the strictures of the genre itself and its consistent themes (law & order vs. justice, gender and justice, etc.).