Monday, April 27, 2015

"For such a little girl, you know, you're neurotic."

Portia is 16. (It's the 1930s.) Her parents have died, and she's been sent to live with her much older half-brother and his cold and stylish wife in London for a year. It's awkward. The wife's volatile and ambitious admirer flirts with Portia a bit, Portia falls in love as only a girlish teenager can do. You know this can't end well, right?

Well, actually it doesn't end all that badly. No one dies or suffers any huge injustice or gets pregnant or ruins their life (well, they don't ruin their life in any way that they weren't already doing so). The Death of the Heart is more of a psychological novel: when you boil the plot down, there isn't much that's all that remarkable. But the personalities are thoroughly and carefully described, so that even where I felt like I recognized a type each character felt like a real person, and I was interested to keep reading and understanding each one more thoroughly.

There are sparks of wit in the story, and the conversations are really brilliantly captured, but Elizabeth Bowen's writing style felt a little overdone to me. It didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all; every once in a while, though, I'd just sort of think, "yeah, ok, reign it in." Still, on the whole it's beautifully written, full of little observations.
The wish to lead out one's lover must be a tribal feeling; the wish to be seen as loved in part of one's self-respect... Alone, one has a rather incomplete outlook---one is not sure what is funny, what is not. One solid pleasure of love is to check up together on what has happened.
The humor part of it is fairly understated; it's not so much humor as, again, observations, but it's still really enjoyable and certainly capable of making me smile now and then.
Pas Avant les Domestiques might have been carved on the Peppinghams' diningroom mantelpiece, under Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense.

What's interesting about this is that Portia's personal history and connection to the other characters is so odd, and yet her experiences felt quite relatable. Portia is the product (that's kind of a gross word but it's hard to word this sentence otherwise) of her half-brother's father's late-in-life affair. Her quiet, apologetic upbringing, moving from cheap hotel to cheap hotel on the continent, was the outcome of her father's sense of shame and loss. When she comes to live with her half-brother, her mother has just died. I sort of thought this background would play more of a role than it did. I mean, it's the explanation for why she's so childish and mousy, for why she has so little experience of friendship or family, for why her half-brother and sister-in-law have so little affection for her, for why it's so awkward for her to be living with them. But, I don't know: Portia's feelings of loneliness, her uncertainty about her place in the world, and certainly her innocent experience of heartbreak all seemed fairly universal for a teenager. I mean, the whole thing hinges on Portia melting down because someone's been reading her diary! Teens!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thank you!

You were right. Yep, I feel pretty confident in predicting (projecting?) that you, dear reader, probably read The Rosie Project and then wrote a blog post or a tweet or something about how cute it was. When I saw that, I made a little mental note. And you were totally right!

I was at a book swap event* and spotted this being put out onto the Romance table, and immediately I thought, That's that book my dear internet friend -- yes, her/him -- said was adorable! Gotta grab that one! So thank you for that recommendation, because it was adorable. I read the whole thing today, start to finish, breakfast to dinner. I thought it was like having a really good burger and fries and beer at the end of a long day. There might not be anything especially innovative or surprising about that, but it's so satisfying.

A photo posted by Julie (@jfount2) on

* The book swap was quite interesting. I can't help myself, I am always interested in how things get organized and I've been thinking about the concept of book swaps lately since at least three have appeared on my radar this month. The one I went to was totally free (*fist pump*). People arrived with their books (the organizers requested a maximum of 15). They dropped the books off at the front table. The organizers then assembled stacks of same-genre books and carried them out to the genre tables as rapidly as they could. Us patrons milled around in an addicting loop examining the tables. It was all extremely simple, and devilishly hard to leave because there were new books being put out constantly and what if. In this case, the leftover books were going to be donated to Open Books, Everyone's Favorite Book-Selling Chicago Literacy Organization. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the books (although of course there were some clunkers being offloaded too). I brought eight and left with five, which I was quite pleased about.

As so often is the case, the ending of The Rosie Project was less fun than the rest of the book, but that was ok. The best parts were the "Don is oblivious" parts so the conclusion was bound to be a little underwhelming. I mean:
'You want to share a taxi?' asked Rosie.
It seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel.
Adorbs. I saw the ending coming from a mile away but it was fine; just because you know that burger and fries are going to be awesome doesn't make them any less awesome.

I was sort of intrigued by the little author interview in the back of my edition, where Simsion reveals that the book is actually the product of many years chasing a passion for screenwriting. I have to admit, that's not the kind of thing I expect someone to admit to: a kind of Plan B success. Or Plan C, I guess, since Simsion had a career in IT that he quit for film. I feel like this little anecdote will be useful in the future.

Oh, and I scored 61 on the questionnaire (also in the back of my edition).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A good old-fashioned murderbook

I have to admit that when I hear the word "academic" used with a negative connotation, it makes me feel a little downhearted. I get that not everyone enjoys school things, but I have always enjoyed school things and even when a subject seems narrow or uninteresting to me, I enjoy enough niche things to appreciate other people's interest. And then all my close college friends went to grad school (I think 50% of the people at my 21st birthday have now finished their PhDs), and my own department is so friendly that I've had remarkably little exposure to conniving, petty, self-important types. Plus, a lot of grad students develop awesome hobbies and side projects in grad school (not me, I'm lame). When I think "academics" I think adorably nerdy people who are about as intimidating as a muppet.

And when I think "academic books" my heart warms, because what is better than an academic book? Academic books have a clearly defined focus, they delve deeply into their subjects, and they provide you with all the information you need to judge them -- or if they don't, then there's your assessment right there. But I appreciate that for plenty of people none of this is true, and alas, "academic", which is a rather accurate descriptor for me, is not a positive for the general public.

All of this is a long lead-in to an excellent book that strikes a happy medium between academic and general interest. The University of Chicago Press has clearly pulled out the stops to make Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago accessible for the general book-reading public. It's very reasonably priced, for one thing, and has a catchy title. It has maps, illustrations, a cast of characters, and a glossary. There are no superscript footnotes, and the technical parts of the introduction (historiography, methodology) have been pulled out and placed in a separate section at the end. It starts with an attention-grabbing introduction and carries on from there. Very easy to read. At the same time, it's well researched and all those important citations are there as endnotes, formatted in a gratifyingly efficient way for those of us who like that kind of thing. Seriously, I hate endnotes but these are very easy to use.

The book itself, as the subtitle suggests, tells the story of a sensational murder that took place in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. It's very much a narratively-driven book: it introduces the players, describes the victim's disappearance, the discovery of the body, investigation, and trial, before concluding with some considerations about the legacy and impact of the case. Now, murders are fairly interesting in themselves, but this was a case of a member of a secret Irish republican society being bumped off by his rivals within the group, so the story encompasses terrorism and financial misdeeds as well as nationalism and racism. Oh! And also the interplay of the press and the justice system. There's a lot here, is what I'm saying, but it's all straightforward and readable. If you like historical murder things -- and I know you do -- you'll like this.

(PS. I am delighted to find I already have a tag for "murder".)