27 April 2007


Friday afternoon, 5:30 p.m. A young man dressed all in black, with a stylish black leather satchel (or meant to be stylish, at any rate--whether it is in fact stylish is beyond my capacity to judge), emerges from Bartell Drugs with a bulging plastic bag and a blender top, which when he drops it goes cheaply-sounding boink, boink, boink across the sidewalk. Will the blender make it through the evening, or will his guests resort to drinking vodka straight?

22 April 2007

All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. Christopher Brookmyre.

I have been puzzling over why I like some crime novels and others I find just tedious as all get out, but not until I was reading this Brookmyre novel the other night did the answer, which ought to have been obvious, strike me. What I like best is when (as in All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye) ordinary, hitherto unremarkable-seeming people suddenly get caught up in extraordinary and dodgy activities. Next best is to read about criminals and their doings. It's reading about police that is really tiresome.

But then last night I picked up the next Brookmyre book and, a few pages in, found it was at least partly about police, and yet vastly engaging, so I guess in reading it I will be able to test the proposition about police being the problem.

21 April 2007

Restoring Grace. Katie Fforde.

This book has not one idiotic, unbelievable, unromantic romance, but two. Imagine.

More interestingly, the heroines of the two romances drink instant coffee all the time. This was borne upon me slowly, as innumerable mentions of putting the kettle on and having coffees gave way to the grand, climactic, money-making, wine-tasting dinner in the charming old dry-rotten house, where for the sake of the heroines' paying guests, ground coffee was percolated in a percolator!

It was the middle of the night by this point, but still I was taken aback. All those earlier cups of coffee were swirled together out of hot water and powder? Who would have thought? Only, perhaps, an Englishwoman. It is comforting to realize that the homogenization of the world is not yet complete.

18 April 2007

The Secret of the Pink Carnation and The Deception of the Emerald Ring. Lauren Willig.

The Secret of the Pink Carnation, the first of Willig's flower spy books, is dashing and impetuous and doesn't feel the need to explain much of the background of its plots, maneuvers, and counter-maneuvers. By The Deception of the Emerald Ring, which is the third book, we get long, buzzkilling explanatory passages on Irish rebellions. Perhaps I am just being over-imaginative in reaction to Willig's acknowledgements, in which she says that some books are harder to write than others and Deception was a hard one, but I think she's entered upon a decline. It is a clever stratagem she has adopted, to send her modern Ph.D. candidate heroine cliff-hanging along from book to book while she resolves at the end of each novel whichever flower-spy plot the Ph.D. candidate has discovered in that particular episode, but Willig has published three novels in two years while finishing her J.D., starting work at a law firm, and continuing to work on her Ph.D. dissertation, and the strong resemblance the parents of Deception's heroine bear to Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are not the only indications Willig might be overdue for a rest. I fear it may be some time before we find out whether the Ph.D. candidate's assignation with the grouchy owner of the Pink Carnation documents bears out her fevered hopes.

15 April 2007

Life Sentence. Judith Cutler.

Perhaps I ought to have waited a couple of decades to read this mystery, as never having experienced a hot flash (or flush, as I guess they must call them over in Britain), I found them as tedious to read about as they were for the policewoman to live through. Then again, while I have drunk many a cup of coffee and rarely failed to find it worthwhile, this policewoman's coffee consumption was as unenlivening to me as her flushes. Nor have I often run across such an entirely dispensible romance. The crime itself was mildly interesting, and I found I quite wanted to see who had done it and whom they had done it to. But a crime novel cannot stand on crime alone. (Or so says I, anyway.)

14 April 2007

Daddy-Long-Legs. Jean Webster.

I hardly wish to contemplate how many times I may have read this book. Alice gave it to me for Christmas, I seem to recall, in 1989, and it wouldn't surprise me if I'd read it once a year ever since. But that would make about 17 readings. Surely there can't have been 17 readings? Why would anyone voluntarily read anything (with the possible exception of a love letter, or a telegram announcing one's baby son's death in a war, or some such) 17 times?

And indeed the book grows somewhat stale, this last reading being just because I wanted to read something but had little time or mental energy and all the readable things I had sitting around that didn't require much time or mental energy seemed to involve gruesome death. I wasn't in a gruesome death sort of mood.

Before I over-read it, though, it was a most delightful little book, full of the most fascinating details about the life of a college girl round about 1910. I have no idea who Marie Bashkirtseff is, but apparently a hundred years ago she was as indispensible as Little Women. Princeton (where the desirable boys went) had black-and-orange triangular felt banners, just as they do now, but you (in your unnamed girls' school) had to furnish your own dorm room with, for instance, yellow denim curtains, and you had to change for dinner but you could wear the selfsame dress to class every single day. And if you wanted to escape the dining hall, you could get dinner at a restaurant between there and town for fifty cents. "Broiled lobster (35 cents), and for dessert, buckwheat cakes and maple syrup (15 cents). Nourishing and cheap."

13 April 2007

The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. Frances Wood.

Frances Wood is a magnificent chooser of illustrations and sorter-out of amusing bits of narrative. She inspires great confidence that of the two thousand years of events mentioned in her subtitle, all the best bits made it into her less than 250 pages of text. Toward the end she tells a bit too clearly how many catalogable items so-and-so brought back from his expedition of such-and-such a year, appealing too much to the librarian who may not actually dwell within every one of us. But this is a very minor shortcoming.

While I was reading this people kept asking if it was a textbook, and I claimed it wasn't, but I suppose in fact that's what it's meant for. It makes of its reader no demands, yet leaves her feeling somehow better informed.

08 April 2007

Tom Bissell (Twice)

Two books:

God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories.

Chasing the Sea: Being a Narrative of a Journey Through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of Life Therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World's Worst Man-made Ecological Catastrophe, in One Volume.

Tom Bissell likes words. "Innominate," for example.

"Do you know the word 'innominate'?" I asked the next person who walked by after I ran across it.

"There's a dictiona . . . "

"I looked it up. It means what you'd expect it to mean. I think it's wholly unnecessary. If I have to look it up, he shouldn't use it."

Maybe if I'd explained myself better I'd have got more than a tolerant half-smile in passing. The problem was not so much that Bissell (who was born the same year as me, dammit) knew this word and I didn't, it was that the whole idea he stuck it in the middle of seemed superfluous. I don't have the book in front of me now--it's a good book, I lent it to Laurie--and so precisely what he said has fallen into some innominate chasm between my memory and the printed page, but it was something like that. Some innominate stage between X and Y, it was, where X and Y were ideas that didn't really seem to fructify by juxtaposition, and who the hell cared whether that stage in between them had a name or not?

In most spots, this verbal profligacy is rather more entertaining than irritating, and only once or twice in the long rambly book with the long rambly subtitle does he fall into grating malapropism. Most of the time his exuberance is exhilarating. When he tries for economy, though, as in the book of short stories, it too is quite effective. The second sentence of the first story: "The wheel, as though excited by its sudden liberty, bounced twice not very high and once very high and hit their windshield with a damp crack."

The book of stories was published after the memoir, but they had come out in periodicals before that, and the odd contrast between their shape and style and that of the Aral Sea book could not but set me to pop psychologizing. Bissell, he says in the memoir, went to Uzbekistan with the Peace Corps after graduating from college, and met with troubles there that sent him fleeing home. Then (I speculate) came the period when he sat in the U. S. trying to get Central Asia to make sense by sending fictional characters there and running them through nice well-structured ordeals, through which their clearly-defined spiritual problems are cleanly resolved. And then he went back in search of the Aral Sea, and found his true literary self by wandering around the countryside forgetting to progress toward his goal. He did end up at the sea eventually, by which time it seems, at any rate in the narrative he has constructed, pretty much beside the point. You try to grow cotton, you end up with no sea. So if you're trying to get to the sea, you might as well do it by heading toward the Pamirs. Or something like that.

The stories are pretty good, but I don't feel bad for people who haven't read them. Those who haven't read Chasing the Sea are missing something.

06 April 2007


Today I have accomplished a task left over from last summer, the purchase of brown shoes, and I have got my hair cut too, and my cleaver is sharp, sharp, sharp; it goes through an onion right like that. Not that it was so very dull even yesterday before I got the sharpening stone out. The surfacing of the whetstone from the kitchen oddments drawer is an all but certain sign that something other than a knife's edge needs honing. In this case it's a set of proofs about mountainside inscriptions that needs its rough bits ground down. (My nose being, I imagine, already quite pointy enough.) But so far all the typos are still in, while my general living conditions improve almost from one minute to the next. Were someone paying me to keep my dwelling in order, I wonder, would I start removing typos for free?