Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Books I'm reading and thinking about- murder included

A Year in Van Nuys, Depth Takes a Holiday and If You Lived Here, You'd be Home by Now, all by Sandra Tsing Loh (read years ago and greatly enjoyed- discussed recently with friends). Loh is a multi-instrumentalist who has performed on piano (see LA freeway performance art), vocals (hear her commentary on public radio shows, including Marketplace: The Loh-Down) and typewriter.*

Murder Duet: A Musical Case by Batya Gur (thinking about, read and enjoyed years ago, want to write about it but can't review this one without going through it again- a fine, complex mystery).

A Perfect Arrangement by Suzanne Berne (read recently and enjoyed, will review, suburbia gets the creeps, and maybe more!)

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (read recently, a richly developed novel of mystery, murder and families, not necessarily in that order, review on its way).

The Innocent and Death of an Englishman, by the late Magdalen Nabb, read recently. These are wonderful mysteries, though The Innocent is a tragic tale, if tempered by the joyously deep understanding and love of his people, and the quirky pragmatism, of the Florentine Marshall Guarnaccia. This has been much in my mind because a note from Cara Black really personalized the loss of this wonderful author, as did the fact that my late father and mother met in Florence.

Chronicles by Bob Dylan. I'm savoring this one- reading it remarkably slowly. I just don't want it to end. I almost never read slowly, though sometimes I read over decades. A few of Lawrence Durrell's books fit in that category, for example, but in those cases the writing reminds me of traveling through Norway: each page is so beautifully written, each sentence is such a gem, that wherever you are, there is no great hurry to go anywhere else. I've been discussing (with friends again) the Dylan-related book Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, by David Hajdu, which I thoroughly enjoyed (in spite of the bad review by Greil Marcus, whose own books I also enjoy, but I felt this review of his was done poorly). Somehow I can't get over the fact that my wife was growing up in Chelsea Massachusetts and going to the beach right when and where Bob and Joan where picnicking (well, we haven't established actual simultaneity, but the year was the same).

The Chekhov short stories and literary crit. on Wilkie Collins mentioned in previous posts: both still in progress, both well worth it.

My Strange Quest for Mensonge: Structuralism's Hidden Hero (MSQFM) by Malcolm Bradbury. I have the oddest feeling that I somehow incorporated the entire text of this book into my memory of Dr. Criminale, also by Bradbury, so that my review of Criminale is really a review of a composite of the two books. This will require some research (or helpful feedback!!??). MSQFM is the postmodern novel that really makes an art of the wild goose chase.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the book that helped spawn the environmental movement. I've been thinking about this because of the smear campaign being perpetrated against the memory of Rachel Carson by anti-environmentalists.

No musicology.

Amazingly, I can locate every single book mentioned on this page. In my house. Now.

I'll track down and add links and pictures later. Comments are welcome!

*Sandra is the sister of a very dear friend.

Added late: almost forgot that I just started The Vice-Consul by Marguerite Duras.

Added later: I've frequently found myself discussing The Emperor of Ocean Park (TEoOP) by Stephen L. Carter (a first novel for the acclaimed legal scholar). TEoOP is one of my favorite books of recent years because, while an excellent (if not absolutely perfect) mystery, it has also set me thinking a lot about race relations, white liberals (that would be me), African Americans and the Black church(es). Carter's protagonist makes some intriguing remarks on the subject, remarks that I suspect are rooted in truth. More to come.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Link between literature and the environment; Wilkie Collins and Mystery

Click on the title to find your way to video of famous writers speaking on the color green and the health of our planet- a link that I found via the literary blog MetaxuCafe.

Also, see (or perhaps read) why Willie Nelson might be right, but most of the politicians you know are wrong. This discussion is, of course, regarding biofuels, including biodiesel: the things that are raising your food prices and helping to destroy our rain forests (a process that really didn't need any more help, thank you very much).

What has happened to fiction here? Hard to say. I've been writing on science for the general public in the past few days. I haven't actually read any fiction for perhaps three days, but I have been reading about fiction.

This started out because I had been thinking about Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, mainly with regard to some discussions of mystery stories and genre fiction over on Crimespace. In fact, I've actually been reading some literary criticism on the subject. It may reveal some of the nature of my relationship with books to admit that I only had to go to my own bookshelf to find the appropriate volume, unread, lying in wait. I know, I know, it is a slippery slope. The next thing you know, I'll be reading musicology if I'm not careful.

Anyway, The Moonstone is a heck of a mystery story. It is so well-known that all I'll say about it is the following: you should read it if you like a great mystery. The Woman in White wasn't quite as memorable for me, but it still was an excellent story (perhaps defining the Gothic novel). The thing is, when I read them, I had no idea about the subtexts on Victorian society that can be found in these books. Presumably, these discoveries would not be as surprising to the author.

I read these books many decades ago and carried their memory along with me, if with decreasing clarity over the years. However, there is a collection of essays on Collins that turns out to make fascinating reading, and has brought the books to life with much new perspective. The essays address his novels, his friendship and ventures with Dickens, his subtle (i.e. it went over my head) association of the Indian Subcontinent with the pure and good in The Moonstone, and the less subtle (i.e. I got this one the first time around) association of (some) Victorian Christians with evil. The book is The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins (TCCTWC), edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor (no relation to Jason, I gather). Since you know that I hardly ever write about a book I don't like, it will be no surprise that I recommend TCCTWC. However, I have taken a hyper-postmodern approach to reading the book: my reading has been nonlinear and markedly non-sequential. I've just been opening to random pages and enjoying whatever I find, so I've read perhaps 25% of the text. But I'm getting there. You might want to get there, too.

I leave you with the following question(s): is it plausible that Wilkie Collins fit so much intricate social commentary into his books, or did the critics put it there for him? And, if so, how many mystery writers of today are taking on an entire society, or a significant bite of one, as a subtle subtext for their thriller's?

A little subtlety would be nice in a literary genre where it sometimes seems that every corporation is evil, every politician is a crook, every mild-mannered accountant, housewife or lawyer can become a killing machine at will, and every crook is a renaissance man (or woman). I'm referring, of course, to some of the books I didn't like and have therefore not reviewed (though I did slip up and mention one or two by name, here and there over the past month- see if you can find them).

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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