September 2019 in Review

Enervating month. Endless heat, relentless bullshit in the news cycle, demanding semester, various personal and professional irritants. And hardly any time to read, as you’ll see in this meagre list.


James Gregor, Going Dutch (2019) Recommended to me as literary fiction written in both third person and past tense—increasingly rare!—Gregor’s debut is a strange one. I often said to myself, Why am I still reading this, I don’t really like it. But then I’d read another chapter. Going Dutch is about Richard, a grad student studying Italian Renaissance literature at Columbia whose personal and academic lives are a mess. He’s completely blocked in his writing, and all the guys he meets disappoint him. Then he falls in with a brilliant fellow grad student, Anne, who coaxes him back into academic life (by basically writing his papers for him) just as Blake, a lawyer he’d had a disastrous first date with, comes back into his life. Pretty soon Richard is intimate with both, while trying to keep each secret from the other. I found this scenario crazily stressful. And although the sense of ennui and diffuse anxiety rang totally true, in general the novel’s depiction of grad school is ludicrous. Anne is a great character—I wanted a book about her. Not for me, then, but YMMV.

Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock (1975) I love Endeavour as much as the next PBS-loving, Viking Cruise-aspirer. Watching the latest series this summer, I thought I would give the books that gave us Morse a try. Big disappointment! The first in the series is tolerable enough as a procedural, I guess (nothing fancy: Morse is irascible without being endearing, which could in theory be interestingly against type but didn’t read that way to me), but its casual misogyny is icky and disheartening. Many series start slowly, so I suppose I could always give Dexter another chance. I see no real reason why I should—Last Bus likely my last Dexter—but let me know if you have strong feelings.

Len Deighton, Berlin Game (1983) This summer, a question I asked on Twitter about what books to take on vacation sparked an interesting discussion about Deighton and Le Carré. The verdict is in: I’m Team Deighton. Berlin Game was my first Deighton since adoring SS-GB as a teenager in the 80s. And it’s so good! I loved its evocation of late 70s, early 80s Berlin (and London for that matter). (Funny how the 80s now seem like the 60s—so old fashioned.) The spy story is suitably but not overly complicated. (That’s my rap on most spy fiction—I’m not smart enough to keep all the double agents and moles straight.) The final explanation didn’t completely surprise me, but Deighton’s chutzpah in going through with it did. I listened to an old audiobook, enjoyably narrated by someone whose name I’ve forgotten: a perfect commute book. Pity my library only has the sequels in print form. Let the Deighton revival begin!

Kit Pearson, The Lights Go on Again (1993) This summer I enjoyed the first two books in Kit Pearson’s trilogy about two English children sent to Canada during WWII. Since my public library didn’t have the third, I figured I’d either have to wait until my next trip home or find it via ILL. Imagine my delight, then, when my daughter and I, finally tackling the long overdue job of cleaning her room, found this on her shelf! (I think my mom bought it at a garage sale or something.) Anyway, I devoured it that same day, particularly appreciating Pearson’s decision to switch focus from Norah (the elder sibling) to Gavin (the younger). In the final volume, the war is in its last weeks, and a series of terrible events and big decisions make for anxious times for the Stoakes children and their guardians. I was genuinely surprised by the ending, which I imagine the publishers might have resisted. Suitably ambivalent. Can’t recommend this series enough, either for children (probably 10+) or adults.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991) I’ve written about this Holocaust memoir before. Fifth or sixth time I’ve read it; with this last reading I feel confident I won’t have to re-read it every semester any more. (Though I see I wrote that last semester too.) Millu’s been a fabulous addition to my class. Students love her, and I keep finding new things to say about her. Of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the female experience of the camp system—and anyone interested in a memoir that has the pacing, structure, and textual grain of a fine short story.

Ngaio Marsh, Death at the Bar (1940) I had this lying around, I’d enjoyed the first couple of books in the series when I read them three or four years ago, and the first pages grabbed me. But before long I was finding it a slog. Not enough Alleyn. Could it be that the only “Golden Age” crime writer I like is Josephine Tey?

Robert Harris, The Conclave (2016) The inimitable Jenny Davidson recommended Harris to me; I started with this one because my local library had a copy of the audiobook. I’ve rarely given the mechanics of how Pope’s come to power a second’s thought; it is one of my failings that I find books on Jewish topics engrossing, but books on Christian topics irritating or, at best, alienating. But I was caught up in this book from the start. It helps that it’s more about politics (gossip, ambition, the use, even manipulation of procedures to get something done) than about religion. But I also appreciated that Harris takes the faith of his characters seriously. He helped me imagined how someone could devote their lives to God in what to a Jew is such an unusual, even off-putting way (cloistering the self from the world, I just don’t get that). But where Harris really excels is in telling a suspenseful story. The Conclave follows Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, (as such, responsible for running Papal elections), from the time he receives the news of the death of the Holy Father until white smoke finally ascends through the Vatican chimney. It should tell you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed this book that for the week and a half it took me to listen to it, I eagerly awaited my daily commute. No idea whether Harris is always this good, but I’m definitely going to find out.

Andrea Camilleri, The Other End of the Line (2016) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) My first Montalbano since Camilleri’s death, which lent the whole thing extra poignancy: the number of this reliably pleasing series is now finite. This is an especially good installment. It includes the usual shenanigans (great food, amusing banter, clueless supervisors), but an important subplot about the nightly arrival of hundreds of desperate refugees on Sicilian shores lends the book unusual gravitas. Montalbano and his colleagues find themselves on the front lines, working almost every night, in addition to their day jobs, to “process” exhausted and frightened people.

Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (2010) Amazing that we even have the essays collected in this volume, as Judt wrote them (via, I gather, a difficult process of dictation, having composed them in his mind during many sleepless hours) while his body was inexorably overtaken by ALS. I’ve had his huge history Postwar on my shelves for a long time; I’m daunted just looking up at the thing. These essays were a much more manageable introduction to his work. But I’m guessing a not particularly representative one. Judt is a good memoirist, but not a great one. For understandable reasons, the book is quite fragmented, and some essays are better than others. Being of Swiss background, I appreciated his defense of Switzerland (a small hotel in the Berner Oberland, site of a memorable childhood family vacation, gives the book its title). I especially liked his piece on public transportation, and how much he loved it as a child. Judt rightly marvels that his parents thought nothing of his setting out for day-long journeys across and around London as a child of only 10 or so. And I admired his midlife decision to learn Czech (a language he had no previous familiarity with), thereby launching himself on his way to becoming, in mid-career, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe. But I’m never that impressed by academics who don’t seem to like teaching (which, judging by its almost total absence here, would seem to include Judt). And some of his chapters criticizing the kids today for their snowflake tendencies are downright irritating. Might be hard pressed to remember this one in a year’s time.


There you have it. Deighton and Harris win the light reading sweepstakes. Millu is a writer for the ages. October’s gotta be better, right?

A Summer’s Worth of Crime Fiction

Summer isn’t over yet, of course, especially not in Arkansas. But my summer almost is. Administrative duties begin this week, and the first day of classes is only three weeks away. I’m sure I’ll dispose of a few more crime novels before the semester really starts to pinch, but for now here are a few thoughts about some I’ve read lately:

Gallows View—Peter Robinson (1987)

The first in the long-running Inspector Banks series, and a pretty good debut. For a while there I read the new installments of this series religiously. I’m a few behind now, not sure why, they’re always solid, often much better than that, and Banks is likeable enough, a kinder, less tormented Rebus. I don’t always need to know so much about the music he’s listening to, though. I’d never read the first five or six, though, and it’s interesting to compare the later installments to the first one. Robinson has become a better writer, but already here he shows a light touch in explaining the story of Banks’s move from London to Yorkshire. And his pacing is good, too. At 250 pages this book is the right length. I’ve bemoaned many times the bloat in crime fiction, with novels regularly topping 400 pages. In fact, Robinson himself has since succumbed to this tendency. Still, meeting Inspector Banks has reignited my interest in the series and I plan to read the next few.


The Strangler Vine—M . J. Carter (2014)

This first time novel by a historian begins what promises to be a very good series. Someone recommended this in the TLS Summer Reading series, and I’m glad I followed up on it. William Avery is a young soldier recently arrived in India in the 1830s. Languishing in Calcutta before joining his regiment, he is charged with accompanying Jeremiah Blake to find a well-known poet, the Walter Scott of Anglo-India, who has gone missing. Blake is a shadowy figure who is employed by the East India Company but lives in disrepute in the “native” part of the city, and in fact seems to have repudiated the Company altogether. Avery is naïve, a bit complacent and blustery, though a good sort. Blake is mercurial, expert in a dozen Eastern languages, an expert at tracking people who don’t want to be found. There’s an extended “meet cute” in which Blake is contemptuous of Avery and Avery horrified by Bake before each comes to appreciate the other, work as a team, etc. Avery is disabused of his faith in the Company; Blake regains some of his faith in the human race. So far, so conventional. Fortunately, Carter doesn’t push the Holmes/Watson comparison too hard. And her knowledge of the period is impressive. She describes the 1830s as a time when an earlier openness on the part of Company officials for India’s cultural traditions was hardening into something more dogmatic and oppressive, an incipient White Man’s Burden. The book drags a little at times, especially in the middle third, usually when Carter tries to burden her story with too much information. But the ending is genuinely moving and I look forward to the next installment, which, it seems, will be set somewhere quite different. (Already out in the UK—Book Depository order necessary? Hmm…)


Invisible City—Julia Dahl (2014)

I read this because it’s ostensibly about the Hasidic community in New York. But it’s actually about the newspaper business in the era of social media, which interests me a lot less. Dahl’s portrayal of an insular world in which wrongdoings are overlooked in a tacit understanding between community leaders and secular officials is fine as far as it goes. But Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker piece from last year explores the same topic much more probingly. It tells you something that a few later I can’t even remember the protagonist’s name, but she has a complicated back-story that allows her access to this relatively closed world. I didn’t find that story interesting enough to want to read the just-released follow-up.


Oblivion—Arnaldur Indridason (2014/2015 English translation Victoria Cribb)

Indridason is one of my absolute favourites and I always order his books from the UK since they come out a year earlier there. Some are stronger than others, of course, but this one is particularly good. A couple of years ago, Indridason concluded his series centered on his melancholy detective, Erlendur. But then he had the idea of writing about Erlendur’s early days. Last year’s Reykjavik Nights showed us Erlendur’s life as a traffic cop in the early 70s. In this follow-up, set a few years later, Erlendur has become a detective. He investigates two unrelated crimes, one recent and one from twenty years earlier. The resonances between them—they are linked only thematically, in relation to the American military presence in Iceland after the war—are intriguing but not hammered home. I’ve written before about my love of Iceland, so maybe this stuff interests me more than most people. But everyone ought to appreciate how almost insistently low-key these books are. Indridason is especially good at showing how awkward it can be to investigate crimes in a small country, where everybody almost knows everybody else.

Dissolution—C. J. Sansom (2003)

I’m not much of one for classical/medieval/Renaissance-era historical mysteries, but I quite liked this first installment of a series centered on Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s who increasingly finds himself torn over his master’s methods. At least I liked it until I read Jenny’s damning but compelling complaint about the implausibility of importing what are essentially 19th/20th century narrative protocols on to the Early Modern period. After that I liked it less. I might continue with the series anyway, though: the first one was definitely readable, and I enjoyed the counter-perspective on Cromwell, who I only know from Hilary Mantel. This book is fine, but it’s no Wolf Hall! Think Sansom is tired of hearing that yet?


The Red Moth—Sam Eastlake (2013)

Found this while in Canada and it seemed like the kind of thing that might be hard to get in the US, plus I’m a total sucker for WWII crime/espionage fiction. The inspector is a Finn who once worked for the Tsar and then was recalled from Siberian exile and put to work for Stalin. It’s all most implausible—Stalin is even a character, which doesn’t work out too well: I get that the point is that he’s not a frothing madman, but the picture of him as simply a malign functionary is fairly preposterous. A perfectly adequate vacation read, but I doubt I’ll be getting to the rest of the series anytime soon.


Ngaio Marsh—A Man Lay Dead (1934)

Marsh is one of the most famous Golden Age British crime writers along with Christie, Allingham, and the utterly glorious Tey. This is the first of her Inspector Alleyn series. It’s not perfect—Marsh can’t quite seem to figure out what she wants Alleyn to be like: is he nice, is he brooding, is he a bit callous?—but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, a classic country house murder with a hint of espionage. Read it—it absolutely stands the test of time. Looking forward to reading more of her work.