Thursday, June 25, 2015

Re-reading Mysteries

Last year, one of my online groups read A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susannah Gregory.  I was thrilled, because I love that series and wanted to see how the characters had changed in the 15 or so real years (and fictional decade) since the first installment.  14th Century Cambridge doctor Matthew Bartholomew was more na├»ve but essentially the same person I’d just seen in book 15, and Cynric and Brother Michael were rough sketches of their future selves.
They were the only important recurring characters I met. I thought I’d remembered the book well (I have fond memories of reading it), but fifteen years and nearly nine hundred intervening books later, I’d forgotten everything but the plague.  The mystery plot was a fresh puzzle and the students and faculty I’d come to know hadn’t yet appeared at the fictional Michaelhouse College.
This is why I reread mysteries.  Some people may think it’s strange, but I’ve had that habit my entire adult life.  Mysteries aren’t just puzzles, or at least good ones aren’t.  Genre novels have to succeed as fiction first; only then do I care “whodunit.”  Revisiting a series gives me a chance to enjoy the language and to catch literary or historical references I may have missed the first time around.  I see how the characters have evolved and either faded or moved to the front.  And, maybe, if it’s been long enough since I last read it, I’ll get to solve the mystery again.
Older books also act as a time capsule.  The world is very different than it was in the 80s and early 90s.  Answering machines weren’t yet universal when I was in college, and even a geeky engineering student couldn’t access e-mail at home.  Detectives had to go to a library or courthouse to find public information.  Early V. I. Warshawski or Sharon McCone mysteries remind me of the world I grew up in, and when contrasted with later books show their characters’ and creators’ adaptive skills.

Sometimes, though, I just want the literary equivalent of comfort food and a broken-in pair of jeans.  That’s when I reach for one of four or five Agatha Christies.  Most of them aren’t classics (although I think The Pale Horse should be better known), and I know every twist and turn.  Reading one of these old friends wraps me in comfort, or brings me back to a vacation (which I almost extended indefinitely when I didn’t hear my flight announcement), or just reminds me that as bad as my week has been, I can still find some pleasure on a 4x7 inch page.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Coffee Trader

Several years ago at Bouchercon, a panel discussed the placement of mysteries in their own section as opposed to the general fiction section.  That's when I came up with the theory of Popular De-Genrefication.  Once an author reliably reaches the top of the best seller list, his or her genre novels appear on the general fiction shelves.  David Liss's The Coffee Trader exemplifies this in reverse.  It's a literary novel (and a dozen years after its initial publication, probably obscure) but I found it in the mystery section of Borders.  There's some intrigue, but I'd classify it as a straight novel.

Miguel Lienzo, a 17th Century Portugese Converso, relocated to Amsterdam and made (and lost) his living on the futures market.  Due to one of those losses, he's living in his brother's house and being stalked by a former business partner.  His current partner, a Dutch widow named Geertruid convinces him to enter the coffee trade while his brother, at the behest of the local religious authorities, warns him away.  And I didn't care.  I loved Liss's language, but couldn't get involved in the plot or bring my self to care about the characters.  Maybe that's why The Coffee Trader sat unread on my shelf for the decade since I'd read Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper.  I have two more of his books waiting, but they're unlikely to rise to the top of the To Be Read list.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hew, Screw, & Glue

Take How It's Made, throw in listicles, a handful of questionably accurate legends, and simplify the language.  Add a series of small, attractive illustrations to each chapter and you have Hew, Screw, & Glue.  Cute, but it doesn't even rise to the level of a commute book.  Sometimes when I buy something from Deadalus based on the catalog description, I strike out.  At least it was cheap.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.
      - 1848 Seneca Falls Convention keynote address

My 5th and 6th grade Language Arts teacher added public speaking to the curriculum.  We had monthly poetry competitions (the winner got to wear a pin on her sweater until the next unit) and in 6th grade we chose famous speeches to memorize and present.  Inspired by a YA biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I picked her 1848 Seneca Falls keynote address.  I've spent most of my life wondering why she's not as famous today as her friend and writing partner, Susan B. Anthony.  Lori D. Ginzberg's biography provides a potential answer.  Anthony was a more public face, and more constant  and pragmatic campaigner for women's rights; Stanton was a firebrand thinker with little patience for public speeches and the tedious follow-up.  They worked well together, but Anthony's activities were more obvious.

Stanton's personality may have also gotten in the way of her fame.  She was a bit vain, somewhat prickly, and possessed a level of arrogance not unexpected in the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family.  As a child, Elizabeth Cady pushed to get a "boy's" education, and went on to the Troy Seminary which was the closest thing to a college education available to American women in the 1830s.  She met and married Henry Stanton, an anti-slavery activist, and though him was introduced to the abolitionist women who founded the women's suffrage movement.

Abolition also figures into why Stanton's modern fame may not match her early contributions to the women's movement.  Although the movement grew out of and remained closely linked to the abolition movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction led to a split.  Some believed that abolition and gaining the vote for former slaves should take priority, while others thought that women's suffrage could be accomplished simultaneously.  Stanton belonged to a third faction, one which prioritized votes for women and she made some frankly racist and anti-immigrant statements.  Even without those statements, I wonder whether the split in the suffrage movement delayed the amendment so long than only one woman who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls convention was still alive to vote legally.  Or did Stanton's (and others') relentless ideology prevent the movement from being pushed aside?  Ginzberg doesn't answer that, but she does provide a clear, if somewhat dryly written, picture of a complicated activist.

Monday, June 15, 2015

From Doon With Death

I'm a Bad Mystery Fan.  I've only read a few Sherlock Holmes stories.  The only book I've read by PD James was Death Comes to Pemberly.  And until a few weeks ago, I hadn't read the books Ruth Rendell wrote under her own name (although I've read most of the books she wrote as Barbara Vine).

I like to read series in order, so I bought  From Doon With Death at the Book Corner a few months ago, and it quickly floated to the top of the pile.  One evening, Ronald Parsons asked his neighbor, Detective Mike Burden, to find his wife.  Margaret Parsons had not come home from her daily errands, and the next morning her body is found in a wooded area.  Why would anyone want to kill a dowdy, downmarket woman with no family other than her husband?  The only clue is a series of love notes hidden in a trove of books Inspector Wexford finds in the Parsons's attic.  They're signed "Doon" and while Doon's identity was probably shocking in 1964, I figured out who the murder was pretty quickly.  Rendell rightly gets some credit for raising the mystery genre from a simple "whodunnit" to the more complex psychological study that merits reviews in serious periodicals, but the motives feel almost as dated as the linoleum in the Parsons's kitchen.  I enjoyed From Doon With Death but it's not up to the level of the Barbara Vine novels.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Vote for Old "Technology"

I read hard-copy books.  I’m more net addict than Luddite, and I don’t have a strange affection for the smell of old paperbacks.  E-books just don’t appeal to me.  They only deliver the bare content, and that just flattens the experience too much for me.
Holding a screen feels different, hard and stiff, than holding a paperback.  I can’t use one tablet to prop up another, and if I want to check something from an earlier chapter, I can visually estimate where I need to go.  
Books just aren’t the stories they contain.  My copy of Remembered Death doesn’t just tell the story of Rosemary Barton’s murder.  I pick it up and I’m briefly a teenager sprawled on the sofa while babysitting the kids across the street, or a college student decompressing after a fluid mechanics exam, or maybe even the woman having a Panini in a now-closed coffee shop.    
My paperbacks don’t only trace my personal history, but have a history themselves.  I can look at a long running series, like Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schultz mysteries, and see five distinct cover styles over the 17 volumes.  I glance at the shelf and see that Elizabeth George’s novels grew into doorstoppers over time, and my James Bond and Peter Wimsey novels (removed from my parents’ shelves) are non-traditional heirlooms.  Those series, and my motley collection of Agatha Christie, provide an index of post-1950 typefaces and cover art styles.
There’s also the communal experience.  When I see someone reading Hot Six on the train, I can ask if the carpet car has appeared yet, or if Bob the dog has attacked Stephanie’s groceries.  That doesn’t happen with an e-book – no one knows what you’re reading.  It’s also harder to share an e-book, and that’s a real loss.  I have lunch with my friend Michelle every few months and passing books we’ve recently read and enjoyed across the table is part of the fun.   I grew up watching my parents pass books back and forth; the first time my mom handed me a book after she finished it was a step towards adulthood.
Finally, without physical books there can’t be any used bookstores.  As much as I love a smooth, shiny cover and unbroken spine, there’s something adventurous about used bookstores. There’s the thrill of the hunt – maybe I’ll find an out of print book to complete a series, or an edition that was published as a movie tie in years ago with a now nearly forgotten star in a glamour shot on the cover.  The reading-list novel may have marginalia, class notes and personal commentary, and a thick history may have a magazine insert or store receipt once used as a bookmark and now forgotten.  With an e-book, there’s no mystery about who read that book before, or what else may have been going on in their lives.
I know these factors don’t outweigh the convenience of e-books for most people.  Maybe I’ll change my mind some day and no longer consider how heavy a book is before choosing it for my commute.  For now, though, I’m sticking with paper.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

I'm a city girl, so I rarely if ever experience true darkness.  Artificial light is such a part of my life that it feels natural.  In Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light Jane Brox explains how light evolved from an uncontrolled natural phenomenon to something we (mostly) control and how society changed in response.

Early man had only sunlight, and the inadequate glow of the campfire.  We soon learned to control light, hollowing out heat resistant stone and filling the depression with fat and a bit of moss.  Those lamps allows the ancient artists to create the Lascaux cave paintings, softly illuminating a few feet of wall at a time, but life remained tied to the sun cycle.  Over the next several centuries, people developed candles and better lamps, but they were expensive, dirty, and dim.  Tallow candles smelled like burning rancid fat, rushes and pine knots smoked, and none of them gave a strong, steady light.  By the 19th Century, whale oil and kerosene lamps cast a stronger indoor light, but they had to be carefully tended lest they explode and they left a layer of soot on everything in the house.  Gaslight came next, providing a steadier light for those who could afford it but with the risk of asphyxiation.

The bright, steady, clean at the user end electric light was rightly hailed as an advancement.  It made streets safer, night school possible, and pleasure reading a pastime for more than just the idle rich.  Today, however, we're beginning to see the drawbacks.  The perpetual light under which we live alters our circadian rhythms, triggering insomnia in some of us, and the shift work which artificial light allows interferes with our metabolism and leaves us prone to accidents.  Light pollution interferes with telescopes, making our exploration of space more difficult, and urban light distracts migratory birds.  We could not achieve modern levels of productivity without artificial light, but we might have escaped modern levels of stress.

Despite the drawbacks, I'm thankful for controlled artificial light.  Maybe I'd be less of an insomniac without my bedside lamp (although I doubt it - my insomnia is at its worst at mid-summer and on nights with a full moon), but without it I wouldn't be able to read a few chapters to distract myself from my sleeplessness.  I have mediocre night vision so streetlights allow me to walk at night without worrying too much about tripping.  Light makes modern life possible.  Brox's history of light made me appreciate that, and made me look at my favorite childhood books in a different way.  John Holbrook had to strain to read to the Wood family by the light of a smoldering pine knot or a flickering bayberry candle.  Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered the kerosene lamp as bright, but imagine getting all of your light from a single 40 watt bulb.  Even the solidly middle class Cuthbert home would have been full of shadows on those long Canadian winter nights.  We drape those days in a nostalgic veil of romance, but they were dull and inconvenient.  I'm glad I only experienced them vicariously.