It would be nice to be able to call this post “Recent Reading,” as that would indicate I’d actually finished some (non-work related) books since The End of the Affair. However! I’m going to count it as a victory that in spite of work and other distractions, I am at least making my way through all of these:
1. Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters. This was recommended to me by Steven W. Beattie, in response (if I remember correctly) to some Twitter discussion about recent Canadian fiction. His instinct was excellent: it’s just the right kind of book to suggest to someone with a long-standing interest in overlaps between history and fiction, for one thing, and for all the eccentricity of its premise, its style is decisively lucid, with no postmodern flourishes. It’s so prosaic, in fact, that I blame its very transparency for my difficulty getting through it (I’m about 150 pages in): honestly, if I didn’t know there was no secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will promising a prize to the Nobel Laureate who solved the mystery of Stonehenge, I would think I was reading a slick work of popular nonfiction. There are even footnotes! As of my current location in the book, what there isn’t is much of the old-fashioned kind of plot, and so I’ve been having a hard time falling into the novel in the way that keeps me coming back when I have lots of other calls on my time and attention. I will finish it, though, and I won’t be surprised if I end up retracting some of that objection once the people I have met as this eccentric pseudo-history unfolds play out their parts. The other comment I can make at this unfinished stage of my reading is that the book itself — meaning the physical object — is lovely, one of the nicest I’ve held in a long time. It has heft, the paper is smooth and feels rich to the fingers, the whole thing is just handsome in an unassuming way. Nice job, Coach House Press!
2. Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance. After my shocking recent confession that I’d never read any Nero Wolfe mysteries, I was delighted to receive a care package in the mail from my supplier. Being a by-the-rules kind of girl, I started at the beginning, with Fer-de-Lance (1934). The perverse charm of the Wolfe-Goodwin duo is obvious from the first page, with their Odd-Couple-like array of complentary strengths and their repartee — which is witty on Wolfe’s side, at least. The case has the absurdity of a Golden Age puzzle mystery (a poisoned dart shot out of a rigged golf club? really?) but the atmosphere of the book, while not hard-boiled, is not really cozy either: I find myself wondering how the series is usually fit into the various categories or subgenres of detective fiction. It doesn’t need a label, of course: maybe its chief virtue is its resistance to pigeon-holing! My appreciation of the main characters hasn’t been quite enough to carry me to the end yet, though, because I’m not really interested in the case they’re on. As I’ve often remarked here, I’m not really an avid reader of detective fiction qua detective fiction, so I need a little better incentive to read on than wondering whodunit. I’m sure my relationship with Archie and his strange beer-drinking orchid-growing boss will continue, though. The vintage copies Steve sent have their own peculiar charms, too. Fer-de-Lance does not have as lurid a cover as Invitation to Murder, but its blurb is pretty irresistible;
He likes his orchids rare, his beer cold, his food gourmet and plentiful. He’s Rex Stout’s brownstone-based, one-seventh-of-a-ton, super-sleuthing genius of detection . . . in Fer-de-Lance, a viper’s nest of deadly dilemmas!
3. Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. Like The Stonehenge Letters, The Lowland is one of my Vancouver holiday purchases. I have really enjoyed the stories I’ve read from Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and I’ve read only good reviews of The Lowland (it even made the Stevereads “Best Books of 2013” list!), so I’ve been really looking forward to reading it, and I decided to start it now even though I had other books on the go, partly because I felt like my reading life needed an infusion of energy. It turns out The Lowland is not quite the novel for that: Steve describes its self-control as “almost arctic” in its coldness, and he’s not wrong about that! To say the novel is understated would itself be a profound understatement. But it does have an underlying drive, like a quiet steady beat, and at nearly half way through, I think I can detect a slight quickening of its pace.
4. Out of the same impulse to speed up my reading pulse somehow, I picked up The Art of the Sonnet (edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics). I sometimes feel adrift in seas of prose and long for the greater emotional and verbal density of verse, but I rarely — too rarely! — make time for it in my leisure reading. In the summer I spent a happy interlude reading Philip Larkin thanks to a prompt from Miriam Toews, and I have some other collections to hand that call to me intermittently. I have really liked the idea of The Art of the Sonnet since I heard about it — it’s a collection of sonnets (obviously) each accompanied by detailed commentaries by the editors — and I thought it would be a great dipping and browsing book. And so it is! I opened it at random at first, and found myself at Shelley’s “England in 1819,” and then I flipped around a bit and ended up at Christina Rossetti’s “Later Life 17.” I know the Shelley reasonably well, having assigned it more than once (it’s especially good for scansion practice), but the commentary brought out aspects I hadn’t fully appreciated. I had never read the Rossetti before, though, and it hit home uncannily when I read it on a recent somewhat dreary rainy evening:
Something this foggy day, a something which
Is neither of this fog nor of to-day,
Has set me dreaming of the winds that play
Past certain cliffs, along one certain beach,
And turn the topmost edge of waves to spray:
Ah pleasant pebbly strand so far away,
So out of reach while quite within my reach,
As out of reach as India or Cathay!
I am sick of where I am and where I am not,
I am sick of foresight and of memory,
I am sick of all I have and all I see,
I am sick of self, and there is nothing new;
Oh weary impatient patience of my lot! —
Thus with myself: how fares it, Friends, with you?
And thus it is with my reading: how fares it, friends, with yours?