Monday, August 11, 2014


More itty-bitty non-reviews:

Mistress of Rome, Kate Quinn.
This came very highly recommended by a couple of friends, who have excellent taste. I bounced off it hard, but this was probably more of a personal reaction: I loved the historical detail, didn't like some of the romance elements, and the dealbreaker was just about halfway through when Domitian bought the slavegirl heroine he'd been torturing for the past summer in his country villa. It's unusual for me to stop reading a book when I've read that much of it, and actually enjoyed a lot of it. But between the long descriptions of the love interest's gladiatorial fights and the heroine's traumas, it was just too violent for me. (The book opens with a self-injuring ritual the heroine continues all through the story, so there's that, too. Maybe that should have warned me off.) It was a shame because I really liked Thea -- which actually made it worse, because every time an even more horrible thing happened to her, I felt actually upset. Quinn is a compelling writer even when her subject matter is overly grim for me, and I really liked her take on ancient Rome, so I might try either Daughters of Rome (a sort-of prequel) or Empress of Rome (sequel with different characters), both of which look a lot less gory. I hope.

The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr.
I am a sucker for Holmes pastiche* (Lyndsay Faye wrote the best one I've ever read, Dust and Shadow -- HOW I WISH she had gone on to write a Holmes series of her own, instead of the dreary period New York Alienist-style stuff), but this book has pretty much just novelty value: it's cowritten by Doyle's son and Doyle's authorized biographer (who also wrote The Hollow Man, supposedly the best locked-room mystery ever -- I have it, but haven't read it yet). These stories are some of the earliest ('54) Doyle pastiches, as well as being authorized. (Earlier than the boom kicked off in the seventies by Adrian's death and the publication of The Seven Per Cent Solution, anyway.) There's also the hook that these are "unwritten canon" based on offhand details in the original stories, but this doesn't really work. It's apparently hard to figure out who wrote what, but I liked the first six stories, which I think were written either jointly or mostly by Carr,** and later republished as More Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. The stories Adrian wrote solo, the next six, are, well, just awful. The introduction trumpets: "Adrian Conan Doyle....was brought up in the tradition of the Victorian era and in close contact with his father. The son, like the father, has a lust for adventure, cherishes relics of the past, and above all has the same sense of chivalry that so completely characterized his father-or should we say Holmes?" (Ohhh dear.) "Adrian Conan Doyle uses the very desk on which his father wrote. He is surrounded by the same objects that his father handled, and he has in every way endeavored to recreate each particle of atmosphere that formed Sir Arthur's environment." (Poor Adrian. No wonder his Holmes stories are awful -- talk about anxiety of influence....)

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, Thomas Beller.
I liked this, but had many conflicting feelings about it, especially since Beller glides over Salinger's documented history of domestic abuse and writes off the testimony of Joyce Maynard and Margaret Salinger. It's well-written, but reading it felt like watching Hannah & Her Sisters (one of my favourite movies in college) after the allegations about Allen's child abuse were made. Beller is also TOTALLY COMPLETELY WRONG ABOUT JAMES THURBER, ahem (it's amazing, New Yorker writers who weren't even born at the time are still pissed off about Thurber's biography of Ross. It's like some kind of genetic -- genetink? -- thing). I had so many things to say about it that all I can manage right now is this squib.

I also reread chunks of Death of the Heart the past couple of days -- nearly all of Part 3, some of Part 1, most of Part 2, in that order, heh.  I still think it's one of the most brilliant books I've ever read -- the first time was right after the Masterpiece Theatre airing of the Granada 1986 film, which I videotaped off a Bravo repeat years later. (The film is amazing. The book even moreso.) The sense of claustrophobia and muffled disaster are fantastic -- I can never figure out what the hell is going to happen to Portia after the end. (Well, obviously, she'll get fobbed off on that offstage aunt, drift around some, maybe get a typing job, or fall into a Jean Rhys novel -- she seems about as dreamy and impermeable as a Jean Rhys woman, if not lovely as most of them are....) I have seen a fairly convincing critical article (Somewhere on the Net, sigh) that says Bowen means us to date the novel precisely to 1936 with the Marx Brothers movie reference, and she herself emphasized the pre-war period's high tension, the combined feelings of personal doom and general looming catastrophe, the strained unnatural emphasis on individual feeling as a kind of last resort.  The atmosphere in the book is always pitched sky-high and yet screwed down tight. And the 'minor' characters! Matchett, Major Brutt, the 'vulgar' Daphne (brought indelibly to life in the film by Miranda Richardson, then in her late twenties) -- all real, feeling, absolutely solid people.

The only flaw in the story for me is Bowen's emphasis on Eddie as an innocent, like Portia, because he just seems like such a horrible person, but I suppose the point is that he really doesn't have any of the decadent experience he wants to shock people with: he's all pose, nothing but surface. The dialogue gets a bit frostily quite-quite at times, especially when St Quentin is on the scene (it is hilarious to me that Bowen's writerly self-insert is such a capital-A Aesthetic hypocritical simp) but since I saw the movie first, I just heard Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers talking while I read, and all was well. I am a notorious critic of movie adaptations (people -- including family -- have point-blank refused to see them with me, and I tend to just sit there hissing "That's not in the book....that's not in the book....that's not in the book") but Peter Hammond made a flawless film. (It just works as a flawless film, period, even if you haven't read the book.)

*No, I don't watch BBC Sherlock, because THERE IS ONE SHERLOCK HOLMES AND HIS NAME IS JEREMY BRETT (and now all my Basil Rathbone-loving friends will want to fight me). You don't want to know what I think of Moffat and Gatiss and their queerbaiting and -- yeah. 

**The introduction again:  'Conan Doyle and Carr wrote together "The Adventure of the Seven Clocks" and "The Adventure of the Gold Hunter." "The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers" and "The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle" were written almost entirely by Carr. "The Adventure of the Black Baronet" and "The Adventure of the Sealed Room" were written almost entirely by Conan Doyle. The last six stories were conceived and written by Adrian Conan Doyle after John Dickson Carr suffered a brief illness.' As S.T. Joshi says, this seems a bit improbable, given that locked-room mysteries were Carr's favourite trick.