Recent Reading Round-Up: Mysteries, Romances, and Feminists

It isn’t that I haven’t done any reading since I posted on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name; it’s just that none of the reading has felt really notable, or else it has been reading for work and thus not something I necessarily have more to say about here. I’m actually looking forward to getting into a book with a bit of heft to it (it doesn’t have to be literally weighty, just something that matters when I read it): I have a number of candidates lying around. At a minimum, I’ll be starting on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s The Murderess soon for my book club, which meets at the end of the month. But that’s so short: surely I can read something else before then! In the meantime, here’s a quick catch-up post on my recent, and quite miscellaneous, desultory reading.


1. Saints of the Shadow Bible. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Rankin’s latest as Steve, who called it “rippingly good” in his review at Open Letters Weekly. It is good, but for me it was predictably so: it has all Rankin’s characteristic virtues, and now that I’ve gotten over my pleasure at having Rebus back in action, I feel (perhaps unfairly) a bit blasé about it. Rankin is very good at this kind of book, but as a result it doesn’t impress me very much when he does it again. This particular installment of the series is reliable but doesn’t take the characters or the genre in any new directions. I liked the ambition of some of the books from a few years back (Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead, for instance), which had a social and political agenda that broadened their scope. Here we’re just hunkered down with Rebus again. We are seeing Siobhan grow in stature: to me that remains the most promising direction Rebus could take the series in.

2. Mr. Impossible. Back in Ye Olden Days when I knew not what I was missing by not reading romance novels, Lord of Scoundrels was proposed as a possible conversion book. That did not go well (though the experiment as a whole was ultimately successful). I think that if Mr. Impossible had been proposed instead, it might have won me over, because it’s funnier. For some reason (OK, because I’m cynical), I prefer romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This was my second read of Mr. Impossible and I enjoyed it just as much. Actually, technically it was my second almost-read, or mostly-read, since I don’t read to the very end of many romance novels. The last pages (in some, the last chapters) almost always turn too cloying for my taste. Sure, all the way through I know pretty much how things are going to end, but often a lot of the energy goes out of the plot by the time the characters have overcome whatever is keeping them from their HEA. (Is that wrong or unusual of me? I can’t think of another genre in which I have fallen into this DNF habit. If I’m quite interested in the characters or the plot sustains some tension to the end, I’ll read it all, but sometimes I’ve just had enough. I also get most of my romance reading from the library, so I don’t feel any anxiety about dabbling in it rather than committing fully to it.)

3. Along those lines, I’ve been reading Nora Roberts’s Happy Every After, which is the 4th one in her “Bride Quartet.” It is hard to imagine a more anodyne series, really: sure, all of the main characters have tortured backstories of one kind or another, but there’s a bland formulaic simplicity to the novels that belies this attempt to give them depth. As a result, they are kind of relaxing, but the main thing I like about them is their “neepery.” Each protagonist in this quartet has a particular job, and there are lots of specifics about how it gets done. For whatever odd reason, I like that (I learned the wonderful term “neepery” from Victoria Janssen in a thread about the Dick Francis novels, which are full of it). I’m about half way through but I think I’m already about to DNF it for the reasons noted above. Plus, I already watched The Wedding Planner (speaking of predictable) so the neepery here isn’t as novel to me as the stuff about cakes or flowers in the other books.


4. Now that I’ve finished with the new Rebus, I’m catching up on V.I. Warshawski with Critical Mass. I’m not very far along in it yet, but like Saints of the Shadow Bible it feels familiar: these are the people, these are the moves, this is the style I expect from Paretsky. In neither case is this a bad thing! I wrote in some detail about Paretsky in a review of Body Work in Open Letters a couple of years ago. I teach her often (we just finished discussing Indemnity Only in ‘Women & Detective Ficton’ today, in fact) and admire her principled determination to use the form of the detective novel to advocate for social justice. If the results are occasionally somewhat didactic, more often than not she integrates her political with her artistic purposes pretty effectively.

5. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. This too came to me by way of Victoria Janssen, and again I’m grateful! I was mentioning on Twitter that I’m working on A Room of One’s Own with my class, and she wondered if I’d ever paired it with Russ’s book. I haven’t, since I’d never read or even heard of How to Suppress Women’s Writing before, but I found it in our university library and have just finished reading it through. It certainly does pair up well with Woolf: I can imagine a lot of conversations that the juxtaposition would spark, not least because Woolf is a major figure in Russ’s own meditations on ways women writers have been opposed and discouraged through the ages. Her approach is (as she says herself) not systematic or scholarly but anecdotal and epigrammatic: she lines up examples under categories such as “Prohibitions,” “Bad Faith,” “False Categorizing,” and “Anomalousness.” Many of her earlier examples were familiar to me, especially those from the 19th century, but she carries her topics forward to her present (the book was published in 1983). At the same time I was preparing my lecture on women and writing and Woolf for my class and reading Russ’s book, an excellent essay by Anne Boyd Rioux on “Women’s Citizenship in the Republic of Letters” appeared at the VIDA site: while it would have been nicer to explain all this to my class as a historical phenomenon, it is good to be able to show them how the conversation we are having in class, through Woolf, is part of a larger ongoing one they might take an interest — and a part — in. And yet things have definitely changed. We read Woolf now in the context of decades of scholarship filling in the absences that preoccupy her; reading Russ I was happily struck by at least a few improvements, such as the availability of works such as Villette (which she recalls being unable to order for a class in 1971 because no US edition was in print) — or the impossibility (surely) that anyone at a university today would read Woolf’s novels “secretively and guiltily like bonbons,” as she describes herself doing, “ashamed of them because they were so ‘feminine.'”

This Week in My Classes: V. I. Warshawski, Ha Ha Ha

We’re getting into the end of term craziness: I just returned a batch of essay proposals in Women and Detective Fiction, we’re starting drafts and peer editing in British Literature Since 1800 and starting to talk a little about the final exam, and of course we’re still working our way through new course material, including Ian McEwan’s Atonement and, in the seminar, Prime Suspect I. I have some work still to do on Atonement in preparation for this afternoon’s class, but I wanted to report one happy little moment I had during this morning’s class presentation on Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only (which, by the way, the students have become very engaged with–I think maybe half of them have chosen it for one of the texts in their final essay).  One thing the students did during their presentation was play us this trailer for the 1991 film V. I. Warshawski, starring Kathleen Turner:

I was happy that the students recognized some of the authentic lines (such as “What does the ‘V’ stand for?” “My first name”), but I was happier that they burst out laughing as soon as the clip began and pretty much laughed all the way through: it was obvious to them that the film (at least as marketed through the trailer) has very little to do with the form or values of the novel (and novelist) we’d been studying in class. Sure, some of the superficial aspects are the same, but far from settling in to easy appreciation of ‘watching’ instead of ‘reading,’ they know that what they were seeing was something different–and not something better, either. Don’t get me wrong: Kathleen Turner has great legs, and the feisty, tough-talking character she portrays is a close cousin of our Vic. Also, as we have discussed in some detail in the seminar, one of the interesting features of the way V. I. is characterized is that she is interested in looking good, and the novel (indeed, the series) refuses the view that strength and power are incompatible with femininity, or that the successful detective must “be a man”. But the trailer plays up V. I. ‘s strength–and particularly her feminism–for comic effect, and as for the line “Try beautiful, it works much better”? No. I saw the film once many years ago–perhaps before I’d read any of the books–and don’t remember it at all well enough to know if if the trailer represents it accurately or rather caters to marketing priorities (serious socially conscious feminism won’t sell?). My feeling right now is that life is too short to watch again just in order to find out. Besides, I have to review Prime Suspect–which I admire partly for the dead seriousness with which it examines feminist issues in both crime and detection.

This Week in My Classes: Grafton, Paretsky, Auden, Heaney, Rushdie!

I think the only unifying theme to this week’s readings is (a slight variant on) Cliff Clavin’s immortal Jeopardy question.

And, speaking of Jeopardy, Monday’s class was our final session on Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi, which means it was time for a student presentation. What is the connection? Thanks for asking! Years ago I decided I couldn’t allow students to drone on from notes for these events so I instituted some rules: no more than 10 minutes just talking at the class, and the rest of the time must be used for some balance of audio-visual materials, group discussion, and activities. Lots of different activities are allowed, from splinter groups to take up particular passages or problems, to hands-on activities, role-playing, or games. Probably because it’s the most fun, many groups choose to devise a game. My rule is that the game (or other activity) must be thematically relevant and somehow move us closer to understanding some substantial issue from the course or reading. Students usually prove ingenious at accomplishing these goals! With An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for instance, we played Hangman (!): each challenge was a key quotation from the text, and if we killed off our victim we had to tackle a discussion question. Monday, then, we played Sue Grafton Jeopardy. Categories included ‘Biography,’ ‘Plot,’ ‘Characters,’ and ‘Weapons,’ which certainly tested our familiarity with the details of the novel,and the “daily doubles” were (again) discussion questions. They let me play! Often I am assigned an impartial role (I was the presiding judge, for instance, in “Law and Order: Gaudy Night edition”). But I’m sure my team would have won without my participation. (Hee.) It’s amusing to see how competitive everyone gets–and the discussion questions give us a chance to put that more trivial knowledge into wider contexts, so don’t worry: it’s not all about the cookies. Tomorrow we start work on Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. I lectured on this novel in my detective fiction survey course last winter term (see here, for instance) but I think it will be especially productive to come to it right after Grafton, because the two novelists are often discussed together and they do, structurally, some similar things–revising hard-boiled detective conventions, for instance. But both the personalities and the styles of feminism are quite different in the books. The two series are still going strong and they have developed in quite different ways, too, though I think in ways that you can see from the beginning, Grafton more of a quirky individualist, Paretsky with a more ambitious social and political reach. My students responded quite positively to Kinsey Millhone, though not for the kinds of reasons I necessarily hope for (they found her very “relatable”).

I got sort of inspired, as I prepped for Monday’s session on Auden for my Brit Lit survey class, and thought that if I couldn’t necessarily bring my students to the cathedral, I could perhaps bring the cathedral to them. So I planned to take a few minutes of class to dim the lights and play them this clip (which sadly I’m not able to embed), even though “Funeral Blues” is not in our anthology. I think John Hannah does such a beautiful job, and of course the poem itself is beautiful, mournful, but unsentimental. That it’s a clip from a mainstream film seemed right for my purposes, which include making sure we think about literature as something not meant to be confined in homogenizing anthologies. Luckily, I’m teaching in a classroom that, though it’s terrible for discussion, is all set up with computers and projectors. Well, of course, when I got to class the computer in the podium was not on, and no combination of buttons on the console brought it to life–and the machine itself is completely secured inside various locked panels. So much for that. I may bring my laptop on Wednesday and try again (although it occurs to me that when I showed them a video clip, I also could not locate a volume control, so who knows how well they’d be able to hear it). Dear People Who Preach The Importance of Teaching With Technology: You have to support us well or we just can’t do it. A/V support is in a different building (ironic, since I’m teaching in the computer science building).

Ah well. Back to basics on Wednesday, then, with Seamus Heaney–though I’d like to be able to show some graphics of the bog people. I moved Heaney from the tutorial session into the lecture session because things went so splendidly last year when we talked about “Digging.” Probably it will fall completely flat as a result. And I moved Rushdie into the tutorial spot, thinking “The Prophet’s Hair” was just the kind of story to stimulate lively discussion around the seminar table.  (That, and the excellent colleague who lectured on Rushdie last year is on sabbatical this year and could not be corralled into making her guest appearance again.) We’ll see.

In lieu of the Auden clip, here’s Seamus Heaney reading “Digging” himself. I’m interested in the emphasis he places on the two instances of “my” in the last bit. I hadn’t heard it that way, in my mind.

Summer Reading Wrap-Up: Mitchell, Genova, Paretsky, Nordstrom

September 12 is the last day for counting books towards our goals for the public library’s summer reading club. Maddie and I were aiming for 25 each. I’m not sure I’m going to get four more titles in by Sunday, what with classes starting and all. There’s hope: I’m currently reading the latest (and I guess the last, since it’s posthumous) in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, and Parker’s books have very few words in them. I’m also about half way through a couple of others, including Reginald Hill’s latest and Isabel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet. Actually, I suppose there’s no reason I can’t count More All-of-a-Kind Family, which I reread a couple of days ago–so if I finish all three I have already started, I’ll make my quota!

I haven’t written detailed posts about all the books on my summer tally, so I thought I’d at least put a few thoughts together about some of them, if for no other reason than that I find I remember books much more clearly once I’ve written about them (plus, of course, if my memory dims, I can amble through the archives and perk it up).

One book that I read with interest and, for a while, some real enthusiasm is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But as I mentioned before, I hit first ‘An Orison of Somni-451’ and then ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,’ and my reading never recovered its momentum. Mitchell is clearly a brilliant and virtuosic writer, but after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them. The multiple genre trick is a risky one, I think, because after all, not all of us enjoy quite such a range of genres or styles, and this book rather insistently refuses to care about that. That kind of challenge to our reading habits may be good, and in fact for the first third of the book I found it invigorating to be wrenched out of one story into another, to adapt to the new style, and to puzzle over how the parts would ultimately interrelate. I’m fairly sure they do, but by the time I was finishing the book up, I wasn’t excited enough about it to figure out how or why.

I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice on a friend’s recommendation (you know who you are, you lurker!) and while I can’t really say I enjoyed it, since it was extremely depressing, it was certainly moving and probably important, too. I thought it read a bit too much like a case study, or a novelized reenactment, especially through the first few chapters in which a number of fairly technical issues of symptoms, diagnoses, and medications need to be covered. But as Alice’s disease progresses, the tactic of recounting the story from her point of view became increasingly effective and is handled with wise understatement. After I finished it, I was pretty anxious every time I couldn’t remember something! My excuses, after all, are always the same as Alice’s: I’m busy, I’m distracted, I’m juggling multiple demands and tasks most of the time…and I’m too young to be demented–aren’t I?

I read Sara Paretsky’s next-t0-latest V. I. Warshawski novel, Hardball, with interest (her most recent, Body Work, has just come out). I liked it quite a bit. A while back I wrote a bit pettishly that I wasn’t sure my interest in this series could be sustained any further, mostly because I found it too predictable that the villains are always corporate leaders or businessmen, or corrupt politicians. Though this continues to be the case, within variations, in Hardball, I’m inclined more favorably to Paretsky’s overtly political worldview these days. One factor is just the sheer amount of time I’ve spent on my mystery and detective fiction courses, and in prowling around looking for interesting books to assign for them. I appreciate that Paretsky has a worldview, that she uses her novels quite deliberately to explore it: an awful lot of mystery novels are formulaic but without the compensations of actual ideas. I hadn’t taught Paretsky in my lecture course until this past year, when I substituted Indemnity Only for Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi as an example of feminist revisions of hardboiled conventions. (In my ‘Women and Detective Fiction” seminar, I’ve always done both, which allows from some productive comparative discussions.) Grafton’s book is much wittier, but Indemnity Only seems to me to have aged better in some important ways. For instance, Grafton’s detective, Kinsey Millhone, embodies a certain kind of liberal feminism that Grafton called ‘playing hardball with the boys’ (hey–I just noticed the correlation with Paretsky’s title–but I don’t think there’s any deliberate interplay there). Kinsey is strongly male-identified; she refuses to dress up (her indestructible black dress that she keeps balled up in the back of her car for emergency girlishness is a running gag in the series); she takes pleasure in pumping her own gas; and so on. I like her tomboyish character, her refusal to play nice–and in ‘A’ is for Alibi and many of the other books in the series, I think Grafton does a lot of smart things with Kinsey’s struggles to maintain her autonomy, especially in romantic relationships. But the books are only implicitly political, and then only at the individual level: Kinsey won’t put up with shit, from men or anyone else. Paretsky’s idea of feminism seems to me a more complicated one; she pays a lot of attention to systemic problems, connecting women’s efforts to achieve or use power to social structures that also disadvantage people because of race or class. She puts a lot of emphasis on women’s relationships as potentially empowering allegiances, but she also seems more positive about the potential for equity in romance, though she doesn’t pretend it comes easily. The crimes of her novels are always intricately related to this nexus of issues: in Indemnity Only, for instance, the central mystery turns on fraud and corruption among powerful men, but the climactic confrontation at the end is nearly fatal for Vic and her love interest, Ralph, because he has not been able to take her work seriously. Though Vic is very tough, she is also very feminine in some conventional ways: we had some lively discussions in my class in the winter about her emphasis on what she’s wearing, the overt pleasure she takes in nice clothes and in looking good, and about the relationship of this interest (which Kinsey Millhone vehemently rejects) to different ideas about feminism and femininity. I was a little peeved to learn V. I.’s cup size in Hardball: it figures (so to speak) that she’d be a 36C. So as far as that goes, she still conforms to certain standards of female beauty–but that’s OK, some of my best friends are curvy.

The last book I wanted to say something about is Dear Genius: The Collected Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. But you know what? It was such a great read, and has so many delicious quotable bits, that I think I’ll put that off for its own post (also, I really should be prepping class notes by now…).

Sara Paretsky Admires EBB

Here’s a heartfelt, if somewhat unexpected, tribute from one writer to another:

Victorian writers tackled the Angel more creatively. A number, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Isabella Bird, took to their beds, but it was Barrett Browning who also first confronted the Angel head on in her 1856 poem, Aurora Leigh. Women may be educated, Aurora scornfully says, “As long as they keep quiet by the fire /. . . their angelic reach / Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn”.

A few cantos later, her cousin proposes marriage, telling her to give up her dreams of poetry and support him in his work. Aurora turns him down. Like Aurora, Barrett Browning dedicated her life to her art, but she also had a passion for social justice. When Robert Browning convinced her of his love, she finally rose from her sickbed and ran off with him to Italy, where she devoted the remaining 12 years of her life to her art, to writing and working on behalf of Italian independence and an end to slavery in America — and to her lover.

Perhaps if I’d known of Barrett Browning’s life and work when I was young, I might have pushed aside the Angel’s wings more easily. Like her, I’ve been fortunate in love, but in her courage, her poetry and her dedication to social justice, she sets the bar for me.

I agree that EBB sets a remarkable example, though I have often thought that Aurora Leigh is more equivocal about ‘having it all’ than is often acknowledged: “Art is much but love is more,” Aurora says at one point, though she does go on to love and write.Aurora Leigh is an odd, boring, thrilling, pedantic, erotic poem (yes, all at once) and doesn’t seem to have much in common with Paretsky’s contemporary private eye novels–but on further reflection, both writers are accutely aware that patriarchy (if you’ll forgive an old-fashioned polemical term) is not an individual problem alone but also a systemic one, and both emphasize the need for women to form allegiances with each other (“come with me, sweetest sister,” as Aurora says to Marian Erle). So maybe it’s not that unlikely a pairing after all!

This Week in My Classes (March 8, 2010)

It will be easier next time. And better, too, probably.

Or at least, this is my comforting mantra every time I come out of my Brit Lit survey class these days. Today it was a madcap dash through Yeats, with some gestures towards “What is modern(ist) poetry?” Wednesday and Friday are T. S. Eliot, next Monday it’s Auden, then Dylan Thomas, then Seamus Heaney. It is nerve-wracking trying to decide what to say when you’re moving so fast. I’m sure learning a lot, though, and that’s always exhilarating. Did you know, for instance, that Yeats had a testicle transplant? Or, more to the point (if there is one) that he considered himself a Romantic, or at least that’s what he said sometimes? We spent most of our time today on “Easter 1916.” I wasn’t altogether intending that until I started reading about Yeats’s “distaste” for the War Poets, who he omitted from his edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I was surprised that they aren’t represented in our Major Authors edition of the Norton anthology, and reading about Yeats’s objections to their depiction of “passive suffering” along with other information about his own turn to political poetry after the Easter rebellion got me thinking about the possible extremes in representing political violence–I suggested in class that his view of the War Poets would be one problem, a kind of lament, I guess, with something like “The Charge of the Light Brigade” perhaps at the other end, didactic and bombastic. “Easter 1916” perhaps successfully occupies more ambivalent territory, epitomized in its refrain about a “terrible beauty.” How far might the stakes be understood to include the aestheticization of violence that “Easter 1916” itself inevitably participates in? Is its beauty part of what is, terribly, born of the firing squads? I wish we could have read “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” or “Dulce et decorum est” along with it, if only to test Yeats’s “distaste” against our own reactions. And yet I suppose that is not really the main point to be considered about Yeats–and I did save a little time for the widening gyres of “The Second Coming.”

We had our second session on Indemnity Only this morning in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I wanted to explore Paretsky’s (or at least V. I. Warshawski’s) feminism more inductively this time, considering how exactly V.I. behaves, what her values and priorities are, rather than assuming she represents any particular dogmatic idea of feminism. (Coincidentally, as I was typing this, Sara Paretsky sent out this ‘tweet’:” Today is Int’l Women’s Day–a national holiday in Ukraine. Good wishes to women everywhere, with hopes for equality in our lifetimes.”) We talked, for starters, about V.I.’s good looks, self-consciousness about eating too much, and interest in clothes, all stereotypically ‘feminine’ concerns. The suggestion I eventually made is that Paretsky sets Vic up to illustrate the compatibility of feminism with femininity–or, that femininity need not be equated with weakness. Similarly, Vic is fiercely independent, with a chip on her shoulder especially about men encroaching on her ‘turf,’ but she shows a softer side in her interactions with young Jill Thayer, calling her ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ and offering her help and comfort: strength is compatible with tenderness. One context for this discussion is our recent work on The Maltese Falcon, in which Sam survives by choosing against his softer sentiments: that kind of toughness is idealized in some versions of hard-boiled detection, as is the inhuman detachment of Dupin and Holmes. It’s easy to see that these models repeat and solidify old ideas about men and women (such as the ‘separate spheres’ model of the 19th century). The Maltese Falcon hints at how damaging it can be (morally, emotionally) to live up to such a standard of masculinity. It wouldn’t necessarily represent progress, from a feminist perspective, to show a woman living up to the same standard. The greater challenge is to create models, for both men and women, of living freely and fully in both professional and private life. Like Grafton (whose Kinsey Millhone can never really accept the compromises of romantic partnership, at least on conventional terms), Paretsky seems to suggest that there’s still a way to go before such a resolution is possible–though in the later novels in the series, Vic does settle, more or less, into a long-term relationship, in this case poor Ralph is just not up to it, not because he’s a bad man, but because he’s an ordinary man raised with “ordinary” (traditional) assumptions.

Tomorrow, it’s the George Eliot graduate seminar and round two of Middlemarch–which reminds me, there’s no student officially responsible for discussion questions this week, so I’d best go start up an open thread on our class blog. This week’s installment includes Chapter 42, currently my very favourite.

This Week in My Classes (March 3, 2010)

Last week there were no classes–it was that heady interval known as ‘Reading Week,’ or, to some, ‘February Break.’ I could tell it was a ‘break’ because I didn’t work nights. Otherwise, I was pretty busy, especially with working my way through the major research assignment that had just come in from my Brit Lit survey class, reading through some graduate thesis chapters, and catching up on paperwork (note to me: keeping track of your students’ contributions to wikis and blogs requires both foresight and ongoing attention). Round about last Thursday, though, it hit me that this week was coming, with a nearly full slate of classes on material I hadn’t lectured on before. So much for the ‘break.’

However, here I am, nearly half way through the week and so far, I’m more or less on top of it, I think–even though it’s hard to escape the vaguely surreal feeling that I’m role-playing rather than teaching (today, RM appears in the unfamiliar role of a modernist and Joyce expert…). I have two research assignments to finish evaluating, but I made it through my session on Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” for the survey class on Monday and have spent a few quite enjoyable hours since then brushing up on Joyce for today’s class on “The Dead.” Friday it’s Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” and then we’re done with modernist fiction and on to T. S. Eliot and Yeats next week. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we wrapped up The Maltese Falcon on Monday and now we’re moving into feminist revisions of hard-boiled detection, starting with short stories by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I have usually taught Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi as the longer text for this topic, but this year I’ve switched in Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. It’s at least as interesting in terms of confronting specific conventions of the genre, but I admit it is not quite as much fun: Paretsky (like her detective) takes herself pretty seriously, whereas with Grafton, at least in her early novels, there’s a playful quality to it. But Paretsky’s focus on systemic corruption actually seems more relevant to the kind of story Hammett tells in Falcon than Grafton’s emphasis on dysfunctional family structures. We’ll see how they react. I have found in past years that when I start taking overtly about feminism, there’s a perceptible disengagement. On Monday, for instance, I invited discussion about how far we could interpret Brigid O’Shaughnessy as a woman choosing survival strategies in a profoundly sexist environment: not (just) a femme fatale but in her own way a victim, including, perhaps, to Sam’s hyper-professional, masculine code of ethics by which “if a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” No takers at all, at least not anyone prepared to speak up.

In my graduate seminar, happily for me we have moved on to Middlemarch, a novel I know well enough not to sweat the details of class prep in quite the same way I had to for Romola. Although I just read through it last term for my 19th-century fiction class, I am rereading it carefully, with a clean new copy to mark up (and put sticky notes in), to make sure my recollection is precise and to see what different aspects stand out in this particular context, reading through so much of her work at once. A colleague remarked not long ago that she has the hardest time preparing to teach material she knows exceptionally well; the problem is that it’s hard to be satisfied with what you can get through in a limited time. I do feel that a bit now with Middlemarch–not that I know anything like everything about it, but that it’s a bit laborious starting it up all over again with a new group, and wanting to get past some of the obvious bits or sticking points. Also, my own comments seem inadequate, whereas I’ll be happy enough to have found anything reasonably intelligent to say about “The Dead” (as long as no real Joyce expert is listening in).

Overall, we’re hurtling towards the end of term, which means I have to get final paper topics ready, mid-term tests prepared, and all the other bits and pieces that are part of your plan but seem so far away when you first show up in January. And before that, I have to get those last two annotated bibliographies squared away, so off I go to do that.

Sara Paretsky, Fire Sale

While writing a series of novels featuring the same detective allows an author to develop the main character (it’s a requirement of detective novels, after all, that many characters remain opaque or two-dimensional enough that we aren’t sure if they “dunnit” or not, so character development is typically quite restricted), it also risks repetition, especially if the writer is fixated on a very particular social and political vision. Paretsky’s determination to use her novels to expose the evils of corporate capitalism means that you can pretty much predict the villains (big business) and their motives (profit) in every novel, and her continuing characters aren’t that interesting to me anymore. The near-death escapes strain credulity, especially as V.I. ages (Sue Grafton’s decision to keep Kinsey Millhone stuck in the 80s has saved her from this problem). The plotting is competent and the writing is OK, but it seems to me that this is a series that just doesn’t have anything new or interesting to offer.