Amis and Spenser and Scandal, Oh My!

amisIt seems like too long since I wrote a detailed, thoughtful book post. Sadly, that’s not about to change! My activities for the past week or so have just been too miscellaneous, including my reading. I can’t really blame Joseph Anton, as I mostly turn to that late in the evening when I might otherwise be watching TV. I am starting to wonder how much longer I will persist with it, though, because I’m starting to feel a bit bogged down in it. After all these hours we’re barely a year past the fatwa: much as the whole situation engages and enrages me, there’s a fair bit of repetition in the day-to-day details, and I’m not sure if there are any more big twists to come. (I feel petty for saying that! I don’t mean to underestimate the outrage and personal devastation involved. But there’s definitely a blow-by-blow quality to the account of it all at this point.)

The slump in my extra-curricular reading is really more a function of being generally busy, though. It’s a point in the term when a lot is going on at once, and when marking essays takes over what would otherwise be class prep time, which in turn moves class prep into what would be reading time. We also had some things to do for family and fun last week: a chamber music concert on Wednesday, the fundraising “Coffee House” and auction at Maddie’s school on Friday, and then the Christmas craft fair on Saturday, which Maddie now accompanies me to. Considering what hermits we mostly are, this seemed like a lot of social activity in a hurry!

To top it all off, my book group met yesterday to discuss Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. What a nasty little book it is! But it’s pretty funny, which is of course a particularly uncomfortable combination. We had chosen it as our follow-up to Elegy for Iris but for me at least Elegy for Iris (though infinitely sadder, because, after all, it’s not fiction) was a much more humane book. Ending Up did prompt some intense discussion, but less of the book (which none of us particularly liked) and more of the general topics of aging and death. Ending Up certainly does not indulge in any sentiment about either!

I was startled to realize that as of this month my book club has been meeting for five years! Our membership has shifted around a bit since our first session on Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, but not by much, and I think we have developed a good personal rapport as well as a satisfying standard of discussion. A lot of my initial skepticism about book clubs has been worn away by the experience, mostly because we are all enthusiastic readers and everyone is committed to actually talking about the books: our meetings have never been just excuses for socializing. I have come to really enjoy hearing such a range of opinions and observations about everything we read. I do still feel frustrated sometimes by the scattershot nature of the discussion. I’m reminded every time, in fact, just how much managerial work goes into even the most wide-ranging seminar discussion, where questions are usually pursued to specific examples and at least provisional conclusions before a change of topics. Nobody’s in charge at our book club meetings, and it would be terrible for the overall dynamic if anybody were. For me in particular, too, it’s been a good thing to practice not being in control and going with the flow! We just have to give each other room, and bring things up again if we are still puzzling over them. I often write the books up here, too, which gives me a chance to put my own thoughts in better order.

15dogsNobody wanted to read more Kingsley Amis, and in fact none of the threads we followed from Ending Up (our usual method for picking our next book) took us to a choice we could agree on. (I’m a bit sorry nobody seconded me on Elizabeth Jane Howard — I might try her on my own anyway.) So we’re taking a bit of a leap outside the box and reading Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs for our next meeting. It strikes me as the kind of book that could go horribly wrong if the philosophy is too facile — plus I’ve always been more of a cat person! But what’s a book club for if not to push me outside my comfort zone sometimes.

I also managed to read two Spenser novels this weekend. They go so fast! The first was Cheap Shot — the first I’ve read by Ace Atkins, who took over the series when Robert B. Parker died. I was dubious going into it, and once in a while I thought there was a line that lacked the usual Parker pith, but generally I was impressed at how smoothly it went, and at how little difference I detected when I followed it up with Sixkill, one of Parker’s own last offerings. I can’t decide if that reflects well or badly on either author. To be so imitable suggests, perhaps, that Parker was more style than substance, and there’s no doubt that both his plots and his prose are extremely … consistent. I have always thought his formula supports a lot of really interesting and subversive ideas, though. I’ve written about him once or twice here before and have often been tempted to give him the full Dick Francis treatment. One of these days …

Finally, I have been watching Scandal, which is really very bad but addictive in the way that high melodrama and ridiculous conspiracies can be. The overacting! The gratuitous blood-splattering torture scenes with drill bits! The astonishingly cynical perspective on politics and politicians! It makes me yearn for The West Wing, which I may have to watch all over again just to counteract the horrors of Scandal with some fast-talking (if slick) idealism. I miss Josh and Toby! I miss MI-5 too, which was similarly absurd in many respects but both tidier in its plots and much better acted. Compared to ScandalMI-5 looks almost subtle! But Scandal is a perfect treadmill show, and it’s not bad for Friday nights, either, when I’ve had enough of taking things seriously.

Things may be picking up on the bookish front. Ending Up reminded me of Amsterdam, which I read way back in the days Before Blogging and so barely remember — so I’ve started rereading that. It’s quick enough, but also smart enough, that there may well be a proper blog post in it. In the meantime, it feels good to clear away all these miscellaneous pieces that have been cluttering up my head.

This entry was posted in Book Club, Weekend Miscellany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Amis and Spenser and Scandal, Oh My!

  1. lawless says:

    So interesting. I just could never get into Spenser or any other hard-boiled detective series, I liked the Spenser TV show a lot, so I tried more than one book. No go. I read two Walter Mosley books and was bored. Tony Hillerman’s books (about whose authenticity I have qualms anyway) were dry too. I got through several Dick Francis books, but that’s because I was interested in horse-racing. I will say that his were probably the best of the bunch.

    I think my problem is that Spenser and the other detectives in the hard-boiled genre neither get into the minds of the suspects nor engage in deductive reasoning in order to solve crimes. Since detective/mystery novels attract me primarily because of my interest in psychology and puzzles, that makes them a miss for me. Oddly enough, though, I enjoy noir despite its similarities to hard-boiled plus extra added misogyny. (Though I’ve only read Dashiell Hammett — The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest — and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series.) Perhaps it’s the cynicism and the twists that noir usually has that hard-boiled novels may not.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Spenser’s partner Susan is a psychologist, and in many books the cases do include analysis of the motives or psychological stakes of the case – but you’re right that (because these are first-person narratives) we don’t go into the minds of the suspects. And the hard-boiled genre is not generally about deductive reasoning. The interest and depth of a long series like Parker’s come in part, I think, from the development of the running characters over time — and in the Spenser novels in particular, in the attitudes towards justice, gender, and race that the novels explore. I think I have read them all at one point or another, and they vary in quality, but cumulatively I believe they are genuinely interesting and original.

      The only Walter Mosley book I know well is Devil In a Blue Dress: when I first read it, I was underwhelmed, but I came back to it and now have taught it several times in my class on mystery fiction, and I think it too is really interesting, including the ways it twists our expectations of noir and hard-boiled fiction. Still, except for Spenser, hard-boiled novels are still not the type of mystery I pick for my own pleasure (I would not call Dick Francis novels hard-boiled).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.