Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, by Daisy Hay

At the end of her Preface to her joint biography of Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli, focused on their marriage, Daisy Hay sums up their mutal story this way:

[Their] marriage was as surprising, eccentric and important as its hero and heroine. The Disraelis’ story is about luck, and the path not taken, and the transformative effects of a good match for a man and woman of modest means in nineteenth-century Britain. It . . . charts a marriage that wrote itself into happiness. It relates the history of people who remake themselves through their reading and writing. . . . And it is a story about what happens after the wedding, when the marriage plot is over.

That description is pretty apt, and I found Hay’s account, which draws on the vast archive of letters and other documents Mary Anne saved, fascinating. Continue reading

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The Making of Marchioness, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Making of a Marchioness was a serendipitous library find that I grabbed because I taught The Secret Garden this term and I’ve never read any of Burnett’s work for adults. Curiosity killed the cat? Ros Clarke said on Twitter that she loved Part I but disliked the (much longer) Part II. As usual, #Rosisright.

This is pretty spoilery, I guess, but I’ll try not to give everything away. What grabbed me was the back of the book description: “Part I . . . is in the Cinderella (and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) tradition, while Part II . . .  is an absorbing melodrama . . . [that] develops into a realistic commentary on late-Victorian marriage.” I got what I expected from Part I but found II a not-so-absorbing melodrama with not nearly enough about the marriage. Continue reading

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All the Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai

I have been strangely obsessed with the audiobook of Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter this year, listening to it (or bits of it) over and over again at bedtime. The relaxed cadences of narrator Jonathan Yen help me sleep. Swaim’s memoir is funny and thoughtful and easy to dip in and out of, perfect for insomniac nights. But I think what really draws me back is the moral ambiguity in his portrait of his own job and of his boss, Mark Sanford, whose embroilment in a sex scandal Swaim recounts. Every time I listen to the book, I consider their actions differently, because Swaim neither lets them off the hook nor imposes a simple judgement. (To be clear, Swaim didn’t do anything scandalous, but he did do things he felt uncomfortable about, like write letters to the editor for Sanford supporters to sign).

This same ambiguity marks Matt Bai’s depiction of Gary Hart in All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which recounts not just the way exposure of his relationship with Donna Rice destroyed Hart’s political career, but the way–in Bai’s view, at least–it destroyed political journalism, changing it from an intellectual exercise in explaining a candidate’s views to the tabloid pursuit of a candidate’s worst secrets.  Continue reading

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Recent Reading: Mystery

Now that I seem to have beaten my reading slump, I’m going to do my best to get back to blogging, too. Most of what I’ve read lately is mystery and non-fiction. Here’s the mystery list:

Naomi Hirahara, Grave on Grand Avenue (2nd Ellie Rush mystery)

I continue to enjoy this series for its diverse cast of characters, well-drawn LA setting, and realistic portrayal of 23-year-old Ellie’s finding her feet as an adult. I like the way Hirahara balances Ellie’s work life (she’s a rookie bicycle cop with ambitions to be a detective), friendships, romantic travails and family relationships. They all get attention here, so it feels to me like a more recognizable, fully rounded picture of “New Adulthood” than romance seems to offer. There are a handful of mystery plots in this book, including one involving the return of Ellie’s paternal grandfather and one involving a superstar Chinese cellist; they aren’t entirely plausible, but I enjoyed seeing Ellie a bit less hapless at work. I really liked her friendship with Nay, which is both close and competitive. Ellie has to learn that she’s not the only one with ambitions, and to support her friends as they’ve supported her. I hope we’ll get more.

Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil (audiobook read by Robert Glenister)

This is a great book-narrator pairing and I suspect I enjoy the books more on audio than I would in print. Since Galbraith is J. K. Rowling, you can find plenty of proper reviews; these are personal reflections. The author’s gift for storytelling and creating engaging characters are well used here. I blasted through the book. I did feel somewhat grudging, though, about giving my attention to a misogynist serial killer; I enjoyed the unusual “settings” of the previous books (the worlds of celebrity and publishing), where “Galbraith’s” first-hand experience of same was on display. And I am so, so tired of woman-hating and -abusing killers. Especially baroquely evil ones. I don’t need to spend any more time in their heads. I thought killer POV was overdone here–I got that he (his identity remains a mystery until the very end) despised women after the first few times we heard him think of the woman he lives with as “It.”

That said, I do think this novel offers a feminist take on such killers, especially through the voice of Robin, who expresses her fury at the way men see an emotional woman as vulnerable and weak, and swoop in to take advantage. The overlapping suspects in the serial murders, Strike and Robin’s other cases, and issues from Strike and Robin’s personal lives all revolve around misogynistic violence and male dominance and control of women, and I thought the novel effectively connects the more “banal” examples of control, like fiancé Matthew’s attempts to get Robin to give up working for Strike (and his jealousy) to the baroque serial-killer kind, they’re a spectrum, and nothing on that spectrum is truly benign. At the same time, Career of Evil didn’t really escape the trap of making these awful, violent men fascinating, in many ways the center of the story (this is how I felt about the “feminist” take on the serial killer plot in The Fallwhich I stopped watching). I am curious about whether this trap is escapable, at least within the conventions of the mystery/thriller genre.

I also thought that Strike’s occasional desire to control and protect Robin wasn’t interrogated as fully as Matthew’s, another familiar trap (oh well, when the hero tells her not to do X, he turns out to be right). Robin does push back, and she does save herself, but I’m still waiting for her to be a full-on hero in her own right. Or maybe I’m stuck in the trap of defining “hero” in a particular way.

The Strike-Robin-Matthew triangle continues to be the weakest part of the series. Despite sporadic attempts, Matthew just isn’t made interesting of likeable enough to be a plausible rival. I find Robin’s choices hard to fathom (I get how the backstory here is supposed to help, but I didn’t buy it). I’d rather he be stronger and, frankly, I’d rather Strike just be a mentor. Unresolved Sexual Tension isn’t always that interesting.

I expressed my qualms and complaints here, mostly, but I enjoyed this book a lot and am definitely in for more. It’s because there’s praise everywhere, and I mostly agree with it, that I focused on the negative. I’m curious about what others who are reading the series think about these aspects.

Catherine Lloyd, Death Comes to London (#2 in the Kurland St. Mary series)

What I remember liking about in this Regency-set series, Death Comes to the Village (discussed at the bottom of the post linked above), was the prickly, grudgingly respectful friendship that developed between vicar’s daughter Lucy Harrington and wounded Major Robert Harrington, and the village world Lloyd developed. Neither of those was enough on display here, and I nearly abandoned the book 1/3 in. As the title suggests, this story moves to London, and the first third, especially, felt padded out with a cardboardy Almackistan husband hunt blah blah I’ve read a million times before. Once the mystery got underway, it was better, but none of the characters felt as well-developed as in the last book.

Lacking that interest in the people, I noticed the historical implausibilities more. The kind of research on display here annoys me. On the one hand, Lloyd knew that a specific book on poisons would be available to her characters, on the other, their social world was thin and unpersuasive (for example, a London house with a stillroom and dairy–now converted to a laboratory–in the garden? I doubt it; set your story in the country if you want that. And surely the Prince Regent is not your Monarch, and is not addressed as Your Majesty). I think what I miss most in books like this is a sense of the decorum that governed people’s social interactions, especially with those they didn’t know well. And the sentence-level writing was sometimes awkward and sloppy.

Finally, I noticed something here that seems to be cropping up more lately: a passage that read like a didactic response to conversations about feminism and genre fiction. First there’s dialogue showing that a male character thinks his scientific investigations are superior to his grandmother’s brewing of herbal remedies. Then Lucy reflects at length on how men are too quick to dismiss women’s knowledge. As if the author didn’t trust me to draw my own conclusions about the scene.

Obviously I don’t know what the author or publisher were thinking as they wrote and edited Death Comes to London, but it felt to me, reading it, like a book produced by people thinking “Oh well, this is the kind of thing voracious cozy mystery readers will blast through in a couple of hours; no need to craft something that will repay closer attention.” If there’s another book in the series and my library gets it, I might be lured in. (At least if it’s back in Kurland St. Mary). But I think I can find better uses for a couple of hours. This book isn’t terrible, but it’s slapdash.


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Three Day Quote Challenge: Family Happiness

An explanation of the challenge is here. I’m squeaking in under the wire on day three; it’s been a busy one. (As a result I’m posting from my iPad app, so please excuse any extra wonkiness).

Today’s quote is from the end of a book I read years ago, Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, and I chose it just because this sentence has stayed in my memory for two decades or so. Polly and her children are flying a kite:

The dragon had been made so that it would swoop, and when it did, Polly felt her heart break open to love and pain, and to the complexity of things.

I’d forgotten the dragon part, actually, but what a lovely image, the swoop both exciting and terrifying–a fall, or a dive?–mirroring the way love and pain are, inevitably mixed.

I’ve written a bit about this line, and this book, before. When I first read it, I was fairly newly married, and still learning about “the complexity of things,” learning to accept the inevitable companionship, some of the time, of love and pain.

This line is an example of one of the things I think literature is “for”: it takes a cliche or a truism (you have to be vulnerable and risk being hurt to experience love) and brings it back to life by making it concrete, specific. There’s nothing original about the idea expressed here, but it spoke to me because I had travelled with Polly on her individual path to this moment of revelation. And maybe, I’m thinking now, it spoke to me because of that dragon kite, concrete and specific, which I had forgotten, but which pinned the abstract idea in my memory.

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