from Compound Interest
New York: Harper Perennial, 2006
The second in The Mobile Library series of mysteries by Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears is full of misanthropic charm and bookish goodness. The titular mobile librarian, Israel Armstrong, BA (Hons), is disenchanted:
He was sick of the excuses and lies. He was tired of the evasions and the untruths, of people refusing to stand up and speak the truth and take responsibility for their own actions. It seemed to him like yet another symptom of the decline of Western civilization; of chaos; and climate change; and environmental disaster; and war; disease; famine; oppression; the eternal slow slide down and down and down. It was entropy, nemesis, apotheosis, imminent apocalypse and sheer bad manners all rolled into one.
People were not returning their library books on time.
And if that’s not bad enough, hapless Israel finds himself arrested for the disappearance of department store proprietor, Mr. Dixon, and 100,000 pounds from the store safe. When he wakes in jail, he faces a dark night of the reader’s soul: there is nothing to read, and, worse, he begins to doubt the very value of reading:
Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel. He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn’t make you a better person, that it just made you short-sighted, and even less likely than your fellow man or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not centre around you and your ailments and the state of the weather.
Things improve marginally for Israel once he’s sprung from jail and can investigate the mystery himself, but he still finds himself woefully short of reading material. He reluctantly picks up a murder mystery from the shelf of the room into which he’s had to decamp:
He’d never read a lot of crime fiction before; it was the covers, mostly, that put him off. He was very anti-embossing.
I’m anti-embossing, too! Mr. Dixon Disappears has no embossing on its cover, and on its insides, it’s a fairly meandering sort of a mystery; it’s wry and clever about books and bookish enthusiasm gone wrong. The mystery plot never really grabbed me, however, so it’s not a book to come to if you want a good mystery with which to wrestle.
I read the first in Sansom’s new series of County Guides Mysteries last week, The Norfolk Mystery, and it felt a bit flat. There was a lot of setting up of the series to come, I think, so I’m glad that I started with the second in the Mobile Library series. I will go back for more non-embossed helpings.
Jose Jeorge Letria, illustrated by Andre Letria
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014.
This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself on our trip to Type Books. Though this was housed in the children’s section, and though it appears to be a picture book, it really does appeal to book lovers of all ages. In fact, it probably appeals more to adults than to kids. While the illustrations by Andre Letria are marvellously accessible, the simple words by his father Jose Jeorge Letria are almost too gnomic to be perfectly suited to children.
“If I were a book, I wouldn’t want people to only pretend to have read me.”
Then again, if only the adults can pick up the irony, anyone can understand the sentiment, “If I were a book, I’d crush violence with knowledge.”
As for me, if I were a book, I’d want someone to read me and love me and write a blog post about me.
New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.
Late to the party, as I often am. This book made a number of “Best Books of 2013″ lists, and Jenny named it winner in the Jolliest Good Fun category, an award that fits this book perfectly.
It was jolly good fun, and I could not put it down. I suppose calling it a book about books is a bit of a stretch, but when an author names his characters after famous poets, and when those poets can use their words to control people, I think you have to say that this is a thriller that supplies thrills to bibliophiles.
Lexicon engages with multiple tropes from romance and westerns and thrillers, as well as with versions of the myth of Babel. Barry brings that myth into the twenty-first century using linguistics, psychology, comparative mythology and computer science. It’s a fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power. A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour. Some of these recruits get out of hand. Thrills ensue.
Of course, magic words can be a bit of a magic bullet in terms of plotting, and Barry explains away how a lot of the odd events never get investigated because the poets have managed to make reporters and the military and governments (!) believe what they want them to believe. Whatever. It’s just greasing the wheels of the story.
I think what I liked best about the book was Barry’s ability to take the myth of Babel and modernize it as a means to satirize our contemporary consumer and popular culture. I found his use of linguistics and neurology so fun, and while I’m sure experts in these fields would find much to quarrel with in his application of them to this fantasy world, I did not want to quarrel. Like so many characters in the book are forced to do, I was willing to suspend thought that would impede his goals with words. I was willing to be enthralled. Something about the quality of his scientific realism reminded me often of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and The Magicians, and the descriptions of the school where the recruits are trained was a lot like Grossman’s college of magic. The books share an ability to ground magic in something plausibly real, they make magic a difficult and often frustrating academic discipline. I was also reminded of Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife. Barry and Pullman both describe a locksmith’s sense of intuiting a precise sliding into place of all the pieces needed to make the magic work.
The magic worked on me. Jolly good fun.
Jill Paton Walsh
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.
Let me begin by saying that Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night is one of my all-time favourite mysteries and that her Five Red Herrings was one of the worst books through which I’ve ever struggled. Train timetable mysteries may have been all the rage when she wrote Five Red Herrings, but, like bell bottoms, these are a thing very much better left forgotten. Alas, it is on the strength of this last book that I have not gone back to read all of her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries. In a way, the fact that they are there waiting for me is a comfort, but I’m also not in a rush to repeat the disappointment of the herrings.
Still and all, when I read Alex’s review of the book and heard about Jill Paton Walsh’s project to revive the late Dorothy Sayers’s detecting duo, it was inducement enough to break one of my usual habits of beginning at the beginning and working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre. Not only have I missed some of the originals, but Walsh now has four Wimsey books under her belt, and I’m only just catching on.
No matter, this is a book that can largely stand alone, and, like Gaudy Night, it’s a campus novel. The mystery plot revolves around an ancient manuscript and the murderer seems to be using Harriet Vane’s own plots to knock off scholars at St. Severin’s College in Oxford. Campus novel, academic politics, libraries, poison pen book reviews, books and intertextuality–The Late Scholar ticks lots of boxes in my list of things to love.
And this book is palpably a labour of love for Walsh:
In bringing Peter and Harriet back to Oxford it resumes the setting, although not the epoch, of Gaudy Night. And it brings them very nearly into my own epoch; it is set in 1952 and I went up to Oxford in 1955. I am writing them for the first time into a world that I actually knew, my Oxford, as beloved to me as Sayers’ Oxford was to her. I have had the most tremendous fun doing that. (More here.)
And I had tremendous fun reading it.
Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.
One of the books in The Austen Project, Val McDermid’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a delight. She has found exactly the right template for reimagining Austen’s take on the gothic novels of her day: vampires! It’s perfect. I am a sucker (!) for this kind of thing, always hoping to find in fan fiction something that approximates the joy that the original book gives me. Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen’s novels, not surprisingly, because it is a book about books, and McDermid embraces the metafictional and intertextual aspect of the project wholeheartedly. The book positively fizzes with it.
Set in Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival, books are everywhere. Cat Morland’s mother sends her off to Scotland with the Allens, and while they listen to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on audio book in the car on the drive up, her mother “displayed not a sign of concern about what dangers might lurk on the streets of Edinburgh, in spite of having read the crime novels of both Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson” (9). One of the Fringe Festival plays is a “dramatic adaptation of last year’s bestselling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For” (43). You can see how McDermid has her intertextual cake and eats it too: reverence and satire in equal measure. Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Harriet the Spy, and even The Gruffalo all make appearances; this book is absolutely saturated in bibliophilic goodness.
She refers frequently to the fact that characters imagine themselves in a Jane Austen costume drama, and by doing so addresses head on the difficulty of reimagining Austen for the modern age. To my mind, she has done so seamlessly. There is dancing, of course, but it’s lessons in highland dancing that first bring Cat and Henry Tilney together. Vampire fiction substitutes for the horrors of Austen’s gothic fiction, and Henry is an avid reader of the page-turners. And while text messages largely substitute for the letters of the original, real ink and paper make their way into the book as well, with a wit that shows that McDermid can hold her own in the snarky comments department:
“Oh, and this came by hand while we were out.” He nodded at a thick piece of card tucked into the flap of the sort of heavy white envelope that signals senders with a good opinion of themselves. (22)
Of course, the danger of this kind of reading is that it’s difficult to fully immerse yourself in the book when constantly on the look-out for comparisons. I read Joanna Trollope’s rewriting of Sense and Sensibility with considerably less pleasure. I think my mistake was to re-read Austen’s book before reading Trollope’s, and it just did not hold up, so I’ll end by recommending McDermid’s book highly and by suggesting that you avoid (re)reading the original first.