How I Spent My Summer Holidays

Every year it’s the same. I leave for vacation in Canada with ambitious reading plans, usually involving a fat Penguin classic. I take the book with me and find myself unable to read a word once I arrive. Instead I’m helplessly drawn to books I’ve left behind at my mother’s house or books I buy, mysteries mostly. It’s as though I need weeks of nothing but light reading to allow my readerly self to recuperate for another year. (As someone who has spent almost his whole life in a classroom, the new year always starts for me in September–or, since coming to Arkansas, cruelly, August.)

This year’s abandoned classic was Leopold Alas’s La Regenta. I read the first 60 pp on the plane and was impressed. Not easy stuff, by any means, but interesting, and often quite funny, particularly impressive since at least at first it’s all about priests. I was glad to have read Sentimental Education so recently as I could see Flaubert was an important inspiration for (the brilliantly named) Alas.

But then I got to Calgary, and the mountains beckoned and La Regenta sat on the shelf, untouched, for the next three weeks. I felt especially bad about this failure because Tom from Wuthering Expectations had organized a readalong. This is now the second time I’ve funked one of his group readings (there was that Hamsun I abandoned ¾ of the way through a few years ago) and since he is one of the bloggers I most respect I really wanted to participate. You can check out the posts, with typically interesting comments, over at the site, though I confess I’ve only skimmed them, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because I feel so badly about giving up.

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So what did I read on my vacation, you ask?

Well, a few things:

Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (1976)

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Rohan had written about this shortly before I left and when I looked up at the shelf of books that I’ve still got to get out of my mother’s house some day, there it was. Bashert, right? I must have bought my copy in my bookselling days in the early 90s. Over 20 years it had been sitting there, just waiting for me to get to it. American literary fiction isn’t really my thing, but the 70s are long enough ago that this book almost felt like literature in translation. Rohan’s review is as smart and thoughtful as you’d expect; read it to get a better sense of the book. She liked it better than I did. Although I appreciated its astringent, unsentimental portrayal of aging, I tired of its protagonist’s jaundiced take on contemporary life. I wasn’t convinced the novel itself was distancing itself from the character’s embitterment, so the whole thing started to feel querulous and brittle. And I really wanted more about his wife, who seems much the most interesting character.

Eva Dolan, Tell No Tales (2015)

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Why doesn’t this superior police procedural about a hate crimes unit in Peterborough have a US publisher? It didn’t seem to matter that I came into the series late (this one is the second; I gather there are three so far.) And the story—about a far-right party loosely or not so loosely modeled on UKIP and featuring violence to immigrants–felt even more relevant this summer than it must have last year. Dolan’s not breaking any new ground, but this is satisfying stuff. I’ll read more but I’d rather not have to import from the UK.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (1966)

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Years ago I read Spies and really liked it. And like all sentient human beings, I love Noises Off. So when I came across a whole series of early Frayn novels in the bookstore—recently reissued by Faber in the UK and Canada; I think some interesting small publisher has them in the US, but I can’t remember where I saw that—I grabbed the one that seemed most appealing. Given my fascination with all things Russian, and with the vicissitudes of European 20th Century history, The Russian Interpreter was the obvious choice. I liked the book for its pleasing combination of English reserve and Russian lugubriousness. Set in Moscow in the late 50s, it tells the story of an English graduate student of Russian history, Paul Manning, who gets involved with a visiting English businessman named Procter-Gould. Procter-Gould has no Russian, so Manning starts interpreting for him, not least in his love affair with Manning’s own girlfriend. No one is quite what they seem, and it all gets a little byzantine. It’s totally unfair, but I couldn’t fall in love with this book because I wanted it to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, another novel by an English author set in Moscow, though this time in 1913, and one of the very best English novels of the 20th century.

Frayn is no Fitzgerald, but who is? And The Russian Interpreter has a great opening:

Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old friends, and no friends at all, old or new, in Moscow or anywhere else, called Proctor-Gould.

Ragnar Jónasson, Night Blind (2015) Trans. Quentin Bates (2016)

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Arnaldur Indridason needn’t worry about being deposed as King of Icelandic crime any time soon. I read Jónasson’s first book earlier this year and liked it enough to buy this sequel. The writing here is less clunky, but the plotting is weaker, and I really missed the intense evocation of bad weather that characterized the first book. I like Iceland a lot but can’t see myself continuing with this series.

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) & Death is a Welcome Guest (2015)

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These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. (Added 8/5/16: I just came across Max’s review too.)

As a hypochondriac of longstanding, I’m enthralled and terrified by stories of pandemics. So I am definitely the right person for these books, which is about an illness called the Sweats that quickly wipes out most of the world. Each book has a different protagonist; the last page of the second volume suggests they will meet up in the third. I found these books in the crime section and it’s true that each has a suspicious death at its center. But I didn’t find that stuff nearly as interesting as Welsh’s depiction of apocalypse. Rather unusually, the second volume is even better than the first—the first sometimes felt a bit like Ballard-lite, though with much less interesting prose—since it considers what kinds of communities could be built after a catastrophe and how hard it might be to do so. The best thing about these books is that they are real just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-sleep-oh-well-it’s-almost-finished-might-as-well-just-read-the-rest page-turners. Volume three, please!

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (2014)

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Another book I found in the crime section that really doesn’t belong there. (And I say that as someone who loves crime fiction.) Woodward seems like a writer I need to pay more attention to. I really liked the first half of this (rather long: 500 pp) book. Interwar England is my meat and drink and I appreciated how adroitly Woodward taught me things, especially about the old Heathrow, the farming community in Middlesex that was requisitioned and destroyed by the British government during the war to build the military airfield that became the airport we know today. I was especially fascinated by the story of how sludge cake—basically the refuse from the sewers of London—were first used to fertillize the crops in this area. Teaching readers stuff about the world is something realist fiction does best, but it’s not easy to do without dumping information on readers in a heavy-handed way.

But before long Vanishing grew more and more complex. Too complex. It tells the story of Kenneth Brill, from his boyhood in Heathrow to his student days at the Slade School of Art to his time in a camouflage unit in Egypt in the war. The retrospective material is brought out at his trial in a military court, where he has been bought up under suspicion of treason. (He claims to have been painting the landscape of his childhood before it is destroyed; the military claims he is encoding secrets about the airfield into his paintings to pass on to the enemy.). The camouflage stuff is interesting, but I started to be reminded of a novel like Giles Foden’s Turbulence, which taught me things about weather prediction during WWII that I could have learned more concisely and compellingly in an essay. Camouflage does give Woodward a metaphor to work with as he also examines Brill’s queer sexuality and the appeal of fascism in the England of the period. But I don’t know exactly what he wants to say about all these things and in the end I didn’t quite care enough to really think it through. There’s really a whole lot going on here, I haven’t even mentioned all the subplots, and I found the story’s narrative structure, its use of unstable, unreliable first person not quite well handled enough to sustain my interest. (It’s no Ishiguro.) But Woodward is definitely a talent and I mean to try some of his other books when I’ve time. For more check out this interestingly ambivalent review by John Self at Asylum.

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So I didn’t get on with my classic, but I read some good things (and more importantly went on a lot of great hikes). Now I’m back in Arkansas, sweltering in the heat, and trying to stay on top of a lot of deadlines before the new semester begins in just three weeks…

What about you? What did you read on your summer holidays?

 

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.

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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…)

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.