Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday bonus post!

Do not click on this image. Thumbnail for decorative purposes only. You must click on the link below to access the image in a readable size.
 Here is the most super-fantastic sci-fi/fantasy flowchart. It's so good. In high school, sf/f was my genre of choice, and I would totally have wanted this as a poster (I might still). Even if you're not into it, you'll like this because it's that very best of internet things, a Sassy Flowchart. Here's my favorite bit:

"I shall require at least ten" -- guilty as charged.

On exceptions and hypocrisy (and other, less important things)

The Radetzky March has to go back to the library, but I wanted to copy out and share this little paragraph before I hand it back:
During her brief marriage to Herr von Eichberg, his wife had made many friends, and after his death she had rejected a few ardent marriage proposals. Out of pure esteem, people ignored her adulteries. That was a stern time, as we know. But it recognized exceptions and even liked them. It was one of the rare aristocratic principles, such as that mere commoners were second-class human beings yet certain middle-class officers became personal adjutants to the Kaiser; that Jews could claim no higher distinctions yet certain Jews were knighted and became friends with archdukes; that women had to observe a traditional morality yet certain women could philander like a cavalry officer. (Those were principles that would be labeled "hypocritical" today because we are so much more relentless: relentless, honest, and humorless.)
Interesting. Maybe too thinky for Friday though. Let's see, what kind of amusing quotes are lurking in my Kindle's clippings file?
Then and now I thought about politics with the indifference a grizzled city coroner has toward the body of a murdered prostitute. (How I became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. Go read it, it's fantastic.)
Things never seemed quite as grim with a tallboy in the house. (An Evening of Long Goodbyes, by Paul Murray. He's talking about furniture, not beer.)
The great Gothic spaceship known as the Albert Memorial was built just west of where the Crystal Palace had stood... (At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson.)
Talking to him you would say: he is an ass, but an agreeable ass, a humble, transparent honourable ass. He is an innocent and idiotic butterfly. (GK Chesterton quoted in the biography by Maisie Ward.)
My husband drives the whole seven hours because I don't have a driver's license. It's just one of the many ways in which I am developmentally stunted. I don't drive. I can't cook meat correctly. And I have no affinity for animals. I don't hate animals and would never hurt an animal; I just don't actively care about them. When a coworker shows me cute pictures of her dog, I struggle to respond correctly, like an autistic person who has been taught to recognize human emotions from flash cards. In short, I am the worst. (Bossypants, by Tina Fey. I know it's cliche for girls in their twenties to identify with Tina Fey/Liz Lemon but... seriously.)
There we go.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wanting: Books about Writing Letters

Are there people who don't like handwritten letters, at least in theory? I can't imagine it, but there are people who like Kim Kardashian enough to make her popular so it takes all kinds I guess. (Terrifying side note: my dad knows who Kim Kardashian is and can identify her by sight without prompting.)

I certainly like sending and receiving paper mail. In fact, this summer I joined the Letter Writers Alliance and am quite committed to doing my part to keep the snail-mail-love flowing. I'm toying with the idea of requesting real mail for my birthday in December, but that kind of solicitation is usually reserved to children with cancer and third grade classrooms, so I'm not sure. Anyhow, here are some mail-themed books I've had my eye on lately.

The Art of the Personal Letter, by Margaret Shepherd.
I have Shepherd's The Art of the Handwritten Note, and it's fantastic, so even if this one is a retread I'd still love it. The writing and advice in Handwritten Note are funny and lively and completely practical. For example: "Do not write with a pencil or use blue-lined school paper, especially not notebook paper with holes punched in it. That's like going out dressed only in your underpants." Point taken.

For the Love of Writing Letters, by Samara O'Shea.
I might just want this for the cover design (yum). But the blurb promises funny personal stories with an emphasis on "letter writing in the 21st century" so it sounds promising even beyond that.

Script & Scribble, by Kitty Burns Florey.
This one purports to be both a history of handwriting (or I should say, a history of the social value of handwriting) and a case for why handwriting still matters. Both of those elements could end up being treated shallowly and polemically and thus make the whole book annoying, but it's an interesting enough subject that I'd be willing to give it a try. Fact: I'm slightly proud of my handwriting although it's objectively terrible. This is partly due to my inability to spell.

Good Mail Day, by Jennie Henchcliff.
Ah, mail art. The internet is home to (photos of) many impressive examples of the form, and it's easy to imagine how cool it would be to see such things in your mailbox. That said, it tends toward the cluttery, which is really not my thing and would annoy me if I were a postal worker. Plus I have zero artistic talent, and, to coin a phrase, if you don't send mail art you really have no business receiving it. So this book seems like a good way to sort of admire from a distance, and maybe pick up a few tips to help jazz up your (my) sad vanilla envelopes.

Epistolatory Practices: Letter Writing in America before Telecommunications, by William Merrill Decker.
Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing, by Catherine J. Golden.
Bam! A transatlantic historical double-whammy! Because at some point you have to stop generalizing about "how it used to be" and find out something concrete. Note that both of these were published by academic presses, which is just how I likes it.

In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
Finally, some real letters. What could be better or more inspiring than reading a real correspondence between interesting people? There are plenty of published collections of letters out there but this one looks especially promising to me.

 And that is my imaginary shelf of books about letters and letter-writing. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

And to think, I've never been able to keep a diary for more than two days in a row

This was an impulse check-out because when I stumble across this at the library:
I can't just leave it there, can I?

Originally published in 1933, The Provincial Lady in London is actually the second of a series. I couldn't find Diary of a Provincial Lady at the library (although the catalog says they have it), but they did have the others in the series: The Provincial Lady in America, The Provincial Lady in Russia, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime.

This is one of those books where, for me at least, the historical value easily outstrips any literary or entertainment value. It's not too much to say that nothing happens in this book. When the book opens, the Provincial Lady has published a book (it's unclear whether this is supposed to be the "diary" of the first novel) and quickly decides to rent a flat in London as a writing retreat to work on the second one. She never actually gets any writing done; mostly she muddles her way through family vacations, household problems, and awkward social occasions in and out of the city.

I was hoping this would be a book that would give a sense of the city as it was, but this was not to be. That said, it's a fantastic slice of interwar middle class life. A taste:
Vicky meets me on the stairs and says with no preliminary Please can she go to school. Am unable to say either Yes or No at this short notice, and merely look at her in silence. She adds a brief statement to the effect that Robin went to school when he was her age, and then continues on her way downstairs, singing something of which the words are inaudible, and the tune unrecognisable, but which I have inward conviction that I should think entirely unsuitable. Am much exercised regarding question of school, and feel that as convinced feminist it is my duty to take seriously into consideration argument quoted above.
Two things to note here: First, Vicky is the daughter, but you have to really use your Context Clues because characters who were introduced in the first book get zero introduction in this one. Second, yes, the entire book is written in this telegraphic style, which can be downright annoying at certain times of day.

Here's a quick cameraphone rendition of the charming-if-somewhat-random illustrations:
That's the Provincial Lady on the right, her Provincial Husband sitting on the left, with their two kids and their Holiday Tutor (!) between them.

The Provincial Lady's adventures in America, Russia, and, uh, Wartime are no doubt also very interesting, and this was a light, quick read. I sort of doubt I'll pursue the rest of this series though, unless I'm curious to read a contemporary take on those topics. Maybe if I'd read the first book I would know and love the characters but just based on this one I have to conclude, historically fascinating but otherwise boring.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Almost like magic... almost.

Hip-hip-hooray! Finally, ebooks are available for Kindle through Overdrive, which provides ebooks for the fantastic Chicago Public Library, of which I am a patron. I love my Kindle, and I love getting books delivered near-instantly, but instant gratification in my case also means instant credit card bills -- or something like that, I don't know. Anyway, I've spent way more than I ever meant to on Kindle books, and the prospect of getting my library books in Kindle form was super exciting, and now it's here!

The easiest way to find ebook is to search for them in the "downloadable media" section of the ChiPubLib website. They come up in the main catalog, too, but there's an extra click needed to send you from the library catalog to the Overdrive catalog. As you can see, there are limited numbers of digital copies, and you add the format you want to your "cart". After I checked out, the page now shows 1 copy available but you can still pick ePub or Kindle, so thankfully the publishers don't appear to be so dumb as to limit numbers of copies in each format.

Once you click "add to cart" you get the option of doing more browsing or continuing to the checkout, although the cart clears out after 30 minutes. To check out you log in with your card number and zip code, just like you do to place a hold on a physical book; no need for a special Overdrive password or anything. HOORAY.

I was really pleased with the amount of information you get at each step, including the lending period and limits. It's nice to have that kind of detail in front of you, especially when this is your first time dealing with this aspect of the library's services.

Once you've clicked "confirm check out", Overdrive's end of the business is pretty much done. You've now checked out the book and once you click "get for Kindle" you get thrown over to Amazon.

Wooo!! How exciting is this right?! At this point Amazon assures you that your notes and bookmarks in this book will be saved automatically, which I interpret as: even though we're going to snatch this book back the second it goes overdue, you'll be able to pick up where you left off when you check it back out. Awesome. But then I start to think, I don't remember ever setting up my Kindle for wifi...

And indeed, I haven't, because my old Kindle 2 apparently doesn't have wifi. Sad trombone.

Oh, this kind of kills me. Amazon updated the Kindle a matter of weeks after I bought mine (and they lowered the price too, IIRC), but I didn't mind (mostly) because I was so happy to have it that I was just glad to have had the extra couple of weeks with it. It's a pretty simple, stripped down device; I've always been pretty confident that Kindle 2 functions as well as Kindle 3 for the one thing I use it for. Plus, the semester was starting so even if I had waited like a responsible person until my first paycheck, I would have been too busy to read and wouldn't have wanted to buy even a newer cheaper model. And now I find that poor old Kindle -- Kindle Antiquior -- is apparently unable to cope with the newest and latest.

Ok, it's not that big a deal. I still got the book. I downloaded it and transferred it via USB, the way we used to do in the stone ages (I guess). So here it is, and you'll be hearing more about it soon enough, I'm sure:
I don't know why the books have to go over wifi (except that it costs Amazon less than over the data network, which is probably all it is). Does the fact that I had to download it over USB mean that it won't update/sync over the data connection? I hope not. I've been pretty good at reading and returning things within the loan period lately but that hasn't always been the case (see: the $10 overdue fee I racked up in the spring), and the prospect of having your place still marked seems too useful to want to miss out on.

All in all, I'm really pleased that Overdrive and thus the ChiPubLib is now serving up ebooks for the Kindle. Yes, it is officially now
The Future

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Trollope" is kind of an unfortunate name.

What does one read in this setting?
Not bragging, recapping.
I spent a good long time wandering around the fiction section at the Chicago Public Library pondering that question. I wanted something reasonably light, but not stupid; although normally a pool is a good place to read stupid things, I went to Florida with my parents and grandma and was feeling a little self-conscious. Anyway, I meandered around the shelves for a while trying to think of something and then I thought of Anthony Trollope. I knew (know) next to nothing about Trollope but I had it in my mind that he was a fairly popular Victorian novelist and that sounded good enough for me. So I spent some further time getting my bearings in the Trollope section and settled on The Warden.
Action shot with mango blender drink.
This might appear to be a very thin novel for the Victorians but it's actually the first of six novels set in fictional Barsetshire -- so, phew, there's still a few thousand pages to go. I enjoyed The Warden and plan to keep going in the series, although I have a few other things to get through first.

Trollope is an interesting writer; he's very "present" in the book and explicitly implies (I know that sounds contradictory but you know what Victorians are like) that he is relating events that he's witnessed. He's also prone to big, florid digressions, including long passages about the power of the press, which are interesting historically but less so when sitting by a pool. There are many excellent little turns of phrase, e.g.:
Here was a nice man to be initiated into the comfortable arcana of ecclesiastical snuggeries; one who doubted the integrity of parsons, and probably disbelieved the Trinity!
Oh man, comfortable arcana of ecclesiastical snuggeries. Fantastic.

The choice of topic for the book is really interesting, at least on a meta level. The plot revolves around the conflict between the Anglican clergy and a reformer who accuses them of financial impropriety in their handling of a charity. There are various personal and even romantic relationships that shape this conflict but really, that's about it: it's a book about a reform campaign and its consequences. And it's very much a book about the Church of England and her clergy. Granted, most of my experience with Victorian novels is actually with women authors, but this seems like a strange sort of thing to still be good 156 years later.

But it is really good, partly because the conflict allows Trollope to develop the different characters and show how a political and ideological question can impact personal feelings and relationships. And while the novel's conflict itself is, of course, deeply rooted in 19th century British politics, it's not hard to feel a certain affinity with the situation. Take this passage for instance:

In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and a laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a lifetime to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so. If the world is to be set right, the work will be done by shilling numbers.
Fair warning, though: Trollope is not very sympathetic to the cause of reform -- or maybe I should say, populist methods. The reformers in this book are idle and self-serving, and their pursuit of a public outcry causes more harm than, clearly, Trollope thinks is justified. Then again, the establishment isn't quite the side of angels, so the whole thing is nuanced enough not to feel flat.

There's also a great chapter in which the main character spends a day in London, considering his problem and trying to avoid someone. The descriptions of where he goes and what he does are great for a historical view of the city.

I know; if you took all of my recommendations you'd never read anything else (and the "Help! I have not read The Help!" read-along is coming up in November so we've got to clear the decks) -- but The Warden has a couple of points in its favor. It's only 203 pages long (in my edition) and, having been published in 1855, it's in the public domain and available as a free ebook.

Friday, September 23, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone writing about Jane Austen must start out with that phrase.

So here's where I was this week:

I figured out how to do captions!

More on what I was reading by that pool in the next post.

I, like all other 25 year old women, am trying to save money and also lose weight, so I went to the airport thinking in a self-congratulatory way that I was very smart to have eaten a sandwich and packed a library book before I left home. Of course by the time I reached my gate I was carrying a McDonald's value meal and the latest issues of Allure and -- oh, the irony -- Cooking Light.

Best laid plans, etc. If there's a better way to pass a short flight than by reading about makeup and listening to dancey pop I don't know about it. It all turned out for the best, though, since there in the middle of Allure was a fairly long article about Jane Austen. As they say at AustenBlog, she's everywhere!

Get ready for some literature.

To be honest, I do not expect good things from an Austen article that has a big picture of Keira &$*%ing Knightley at its top and appears in a magazine with "Rock & Roll Hair!" as a major headline. The little teaser subheading is also pretty cringey with its "Jane Austen expertly dissected the social networks of her era" and its "she's more relevant than ever". But! Many apologies and kudos to essay author Liesl Schillinger, because this was actually quite good. And, for the record, she does not start out with the "truth universally acknowledged" business but rather like so:
Have you ever asked yourself what Jane Austen might have thought of you if she'd known you? It's tempting to think you would number among her heroes and heroines... But what must it have been like for the English women and men of her era who read her novels and guessed that they were caricatured in her pages--perhaps as a naive country girl (Harriet in Emma), a calculating social climber (Mrs. Clay in Persuasion), or a deceitful frenemy (Isabella in Northanger Abbey)?
Setting aside the use of the word "frenemy", which I do not condone, this is exactly what I like to see. It's all too easy to focus on the love stories, but the real accomplishment in Austen's novels is that she gets all these various characters, good, evil, and silly, just exactly right.

Schillinger says she first read Austen at age nine, and every time she's read (and re-read) the books she's marked the initials of friends and family in the margins next to passages that remind her of them. This isn't something I'd ever think of doing, but it sounds really sweet, particularly when she describes re-reading a book and being reminded of what her life was like the last time she read it.

Of course, we know that Schillinger is Good People when she says that Persuasion is her favorite. Persuasion is my favorite too -- arguably it's the favorite of anyone who's read all six (she says snootily). It's hard to resist the idea that all your wishes will come true in the end, that your regrets can be undone with time. And even though that aspect of the story might seem too "fairy-tale" to be realistic, Persuasion still might be the best example of how "rooted" Austen's romances are. For Austen, people are part of a society; they have real circumstances and connections and limitations. There's no riding off into the sunset, and while love can conquer many things it can't necessarily conquer all. Of course, my own interpretation of Persuasion is that Anne wasn't wrong in refusing Wentworth, and while she regrets it from the heart and with hindsight can see that it would have worked out, rejecting him was, at the time, the only sensible thing to do. But that's me.

Anyway, I will be back on Monday to tell you about my new pal, Anthony Trollope.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Serious historical fiction

After heaps of very light material, each book selected for the very profound reason that it was the next in the series, I got a little cocky and decided to take on something more literary, at the urging of my old friend Amazon. Behold: The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

And let's all take a moment and the proximate excuse to listen to the Radetzky March, shall we? I came to this book by a typically circuitous route. I had been reading the Frank Tallis mysteries set in Vienna, and realizing that I was reaching the end of the series, looked them up on Amazon to see whether there were another one coming soon or if there were something similar the Big A could recommend.

I realize that every time I use Amazon for recommendations librarians and indie book store clerks around the country experience stabbing pains, but such are the lazy, degenerate times we live in.

Anyhow, A-dog suggested Roth, which rang a bell; I'm reasonably sure I've had this book recommended to me before. And then the library had it, and the back of the book described it as a "classic saga". In spite of my demonstrable love of unchallenging fiction, I, like most academics, prefer to think of myself as a reader of Important Books, so this was calling my name. "A masterpiece"! "One of the most readable, poignant, and superb novels in twentieth century German"! "A universal story for our times"! Just like me!

Plus, I have a fondness for the name "Radetzky" ever since hearing it pronounced by a Dutch professor in the resoundingly awesome way that only a Dutch professor on an impassioned tangent can.

As a book about the whimpering end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is a Serious book and really a very sad one. Emptiness and aimlessness seem unavoidable; real human contact and love are non-existent. It's a sad, dying world, in which the exterior and interior, never terribly closely allied, are moving unavoidably apart.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course; there are some very sweet moments and although it's hard to judge the style of a book in translation the writing is excellent too. Here's a lovely little sentence that was practically made for excerpting:
Lieutenant Trotta wasn't experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.
Although there's also a bad-weather storm that kicks up as they receive the news that the Archduke has been assassinated, so.

It's a very "male" novel; the emotional trials and inhibitions (mostly inhibitions) of men are the core of the book. In a way, the book doesn't portray a culture or a society so much as a creaking mechanism, in which there is only one way to act, one direction to take, and little or no choice about anything. In this way, although it ostensibly follows various individuals' lives, the book is directly "about" the empire rather than the people.

All of this is unsurprising, I suppose, but especially unsurprising given that Roth wrote the book in the early 1930s (first published 1932). That, in itself, is fascinating.

The Radetzky March is very good (and I'm sure Harold Bloom and the New York Review of Books et al. are relieved to have my confirmation of their judgment). It does not make for the best commuter reading -- although carrying it almost certainly makes you look smart in a non-trendy way, so if that's your goal, bypass the so-last-year thick plastic frames and give Joseph Roth a try.

In all seriousness, if you have an interest in European history leading up to the First World War, this would make a good choice. Austria-Hungary tends to get overlooked in survey courses, not without good cause, but it's a fascinating and central (also literally central) part of understanding the long-19th century, and indeed the 20th.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spinsters getting things done

Agatha Christie's The Murder in the Vicarage was free for Kindle, so of course I snapped it up. Of course it was good. Liking an Agatha Christie mystery is like, I don't know, enjoying a symphony by Beethoven or admitting that the French make some pretty decent wine. I liked that the story was told from the first-person perspective of one of the by-stander characters; that was pretty neat. Also, sunsets are profoundly beautiful.

Agatha Christie novels seem like classic old-lady reading, which, I admit, is kind of a barrier for me, although I also avoid books that are very popular currently. I will need to get over that because Miss Marple is a very enjoyable character. Of course she's a kind of soul sister to Dorothy Sayers' Miss Climpson, another spinster using her snooping powers for good. And I suspect I'm drawn to both of them through my childhood love of Nancy Drew -- another series I burned through as quickly as possible. Sure, Nancy had Bess and Ned and her father (Mr. Drew, Esq.?), but for the most part her investigating activities were powered by her own snooping.

Miss Climpson, if you're wondering, first appears in Unnatural Death; another notable spinster of the Wimsey series is Miss Murchison, who appears in Strong Poison.

Of course (setting aside Nancy Drew, Yank of the first order) both Climpson and Marple also belong to a very particular moment in the history of women, and specifically of single women. The late Victorian and Edwardian period had seen the rise of professional women asserting their right to support themselves, often through serving the professional needs of other women. Although many scholars argue that the rise of Freudian theories, which cast suspicion on single women as "repressed" (see: Gaudy Night), put an end to this flowering of independent single women, the situation between the wars was still very significant. After all, it was widely believed that the slaughter of the First World War must leave many women single who would otherwise have gotten married. And, let's don't forget, women in Britain got the vote in two stages: in 1918 women who might be qualified as "older" or more stable received the vote, and in 1928 women got the vote on the same basis as men.

All of which is to say that in the 1920s and 1930s when Christie and Sayers were writing the characters of Marple and Climpson, respectively, we have a society that was thinking about the contributions women on their own could make to society, and had been thinking about this for some time. Of course this isn't all rosy. Both Marple and Climpson are obviously "marginal"; they're almost constantly being insulted directly or indirectly. Their detective activities are an outlet of useful activity in lives that would otherwise, by implication, be pretty useless. But I still think they're interesting characters that point up a contemporary interest in spinsters, and a wider sense that women were becoming important (somehow).

Setting the historical interest aside, I've always liked characters who use their Special Expertise to solve a problem. Maybe that's why I like mysteries so much: because I'm just waiting for the situation in which my knowing what guttae are or how to format a bibliographic entry in Chicago style makes me the hero.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I have recommended this book to strangers (before now, I mean)

Few things make me feel more guilty, more instantly, than using the wishlist on the Amazon app on my iPhone to bookmark titles I'm looking at in a physical bookstore. Getting the book from the library later makes me feel less guilty; buying it from Amazon makes me feel more guilty. So following that logic, this book amounts to a mortal sin since I saw it in Open Books (a charity used bookstore) and then bought it for my Kindle using the wicked phone. Oh dear.

Worth it though.

An Evening of Long Goodbyes drew me in first with the title and then the cover art. I don't think I bothered to turn it over, because the following quotation was on the cover:
"If Nick Hornby and PG Wodehouse conspired to write a book while strolling through Chekhov's cherry orchard, this might be the result." -- The Wall Street Journal

Claiming that a book bears some resemblance to PG Wodehouse sets a pretty high bar, and I would say that An Evening of Long Goodbyes is the best possible result of such a comparison. The thing is that Murray's not trying to write the kind of goofy, fluffy entertainment that Wodehouse produced.

The book has two elements: a humorous and light-hearted part and a dark and tragic part. The first half of the book is less dark than the second, but both the bitter and the sweet are present all the way through. It has to do with the ways in which people try to cope with reality by avoiding it. The main character aspires to the kind of brainlessness usually reserved for Bertie Wooster's chums, but as the story progresses you not only see him raked over the coals for this, you also start to sympathize with him. I'm not describing this at all well, but Murray manages to make the book "uneven" in the best possible way.

When I first finished the book, my main reaction was "oh, so I'm done with this now"; then, about 15 minutes later I loved it. Two days later, I was in a Waterstones in London and saw a woman browsing the new books and looking at Murray's latest/second book, Skippy Dies and I actually interrupted her to awkwardly recommend An Evening of Long Goodbyes. And as if that weren't awkward enough I told her she might hate it. "Hello stranger, you really ought to read this random book that's not in front of us, although, on second thought you might hate it."

And so that is the message I send to you. Go read this book. You might hate it, but probably not (or not for long).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This series may possibly be set in Vienna

There I was at Open Books, looking for Dorothy Sayers. Disappointed that all the Wimsey books in stock were ones I'd already read (I'm dangerously close to having drawn that well dry), I let my eyes wander over the Mystery section, when A Death in Vienna, shelved under T for Tallis, Frank, caught my eye. I read the back. It was set in 1902. It sounded okay. So I bought it. This is the least thought I have put into selecting a book in a very long time. And it pretty much paid off.

There are five books so far in the series: A Death in Vienna, Vienna Blood, Fatal Lies, Vienna Secrets, and Vienna Twilight, and thanks to the Chicago Public Library I have now read all of them, in order. Thank you to the good citizens of Chicago for not impeding me in this because it really messes me up when I can't read things in order. I liked them, and would have kept going for probably another couple of books if this were 2014 and there were another couple of books in the series. I like them. I feel the need to repeat that because now I might end up writing some things that might sound slightly insulting.

There are two main characters, Max Liebermann (a psychologist and devotee of Freud's new-fangled theories) and Oskar Rheinhardt (a police detective with an admirable love of cake). Tallis strikes a nice balance with these two; they work together well, each in his own sphere. It's easy to have characters who seem to do nothing but solve mysteries, and I think one of the big strengths of the books is that Tallis really succeeds in anchoring the events of the stories in the flow of the normal passage of time and normal lives. Not that I don't usually overlook the mystery-story cliche of a small village with regular, frequent violent deaths. Furthermore, there's plenty of love and family dynamics and so even though every case seems to involve a serial killer, the books as a whole are well rounded out.

Liebermann and Rheinhardt like to play music together, and also get together in cafes to drink coffee and eat pastries, both of which activities are described in loving detail. I see on Amazon that some reviewers (not the mob, I'm talking about the short professional blurbs) draw a straight line between Liebermann and Rheinhardt and Aubrey and Maturin, which I think is unwarranted. As a devoted reader of Patrick O'Brian's superlative seafaring series, I don't think it's fair to accuse Tallis of too much borrowing. The music-playing makes ample sense within the setting, as does the friendship dynamic, so I think it all stands on its merits.

Incidentally, I'm fairly sure that Tallis just sidesteps the whole "origins" problem by just asserting in the first book that they're friends and have worked together before.

I say: well done, Frank Tallis. I suppose some people would cry laziness or bad form, but I'm perfectly happy just to get on with things without some kind of awkward shoehorning-in of backstory.

The mysteries themselves are okay; lots of blood and gore and complex solutions. Tallis has two central gimmicks (not used in a pejorative sense) in his series. First, the historical setting and particularly Liebermann's Jewish heritage within that setting. This aspect is okay, but starting to get a little creaky toward the end of the series-so-far.

Second is the psychoanalysis, which is fascinating for a totally different reason than the author (must) intend. Liebermann's contribution to the investigations is his application of Freud's hot-off-the-pen theories - Freud is actually a character in the books, and Liebermann often meets with him to discuss interpretations. Tallis himself is described in his author bio as "a practicing clinical psychologist and an expert in obsessional states." And yet! None of Max/Tallis/Freud's insights seem terribly surprising to this veteran of Law and Order: SVU. I'm going to take Tallis' intelligence and authority at face value, leaving only the following possible conclusions:

1. Freud's theories have really permeated our modern consciousness, to the degree that even I am aware of them.

2. Tallis underestimates the psychoanalytical training his readers (I) have had from the eminent Doctor Huang and his colleagues at NYPD's SVU.

3. There really is only so much that can be said about murderous sexual perversion.

And on that hopeful note I shall leave you.

Welcome, reader(s)!

As a graduate student in the humanities I have spent the last three years forcing myself to read things that have been, on the whole, fairly tedious if not actually boring, the kind of thing that occasionally makes me regret deciding to make my living by virtue of being literate. Since passing my exams, however, it's been a whole new world at the end of the reading rainbow, and I've been devouring fiction (fiction!) at alarming rates. By starting this blog, I've basically guaranteed that I will lose all interest in reading in short order, but in the meantime hopefully I've built up the kind of backlog that will let me write up too-long essays for literally weeks.