Sunday miscellany 19

I feel a bit stuck, reading-wise. I’m actually writing this on Saturday and I can’t work out what to read next. Consulting random.org with my numbered TBR list in hand, I was allotted Ivan Turgenev’s Smoke, but after the first four chapters it didn’t match my mood. The next title on my small proof pile is Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows, which I’m definitely looking forward to, but I like alternating proofs with older books, project books, PhD reads, etc., and I read a proof very recently—is another one too soon? My next African Summer title is Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, which I added to the list as a possible alternate; I have a library copy on my bureau but something is stopping me from picking it up. I’m still reading through the Cadfael mysteries, but the next title, The Devil’s Novice, is only available through the local library as an audiobook. I’m giving it a go, and finding it easy enough to follow (a tendency to lose focus, and therefore the thread of a plot, while listening is what prompted me to stop my Audible subscription in 2020) but it takes more than twice as long to listen to one (8 hours) as to read it (I take a little over 3 hours to read each as an ebook, on average). My friend Mairi lent me a bag of books a few months ago; I’ve picked up the remaining title, Ursula K Le Guin’s essay/speech collection Dancing at the Edge of the World, and have enjoyed the first two selections, but there’s no hard deadline to finish it. Perhaps above all, the weather seems to demand something else, something specific, some kind of reading experience that replicates being twelve and having nothing to do except drink lemonade, go to the neighbour’s swimming pool, and read through stacks of Tamora Pierce (or Jane Austen, or Meg Cabot, or Brian Jacques, or whatever other kick I was on at the time.) I can’t figure out how to recreate that sense of endless time and quicksilver reading, but it’s what this ruthless heat and sunshine appears to require.

I did read some books last week before getting stuck, though.

The Sanctuary Sparrow, by Ellis Peters (1983): [spoilers ahead] As you have probably guessed, you are going to have to put up with at least one Cadfael mystery per week until I’ve exhausted Bromley library’s supply. They are exactly the sort of quicksilver reading I mention above, and the only reason I’m not using them right now to deal with my slump is the aforementioned audiobook situation. This one starts with a bang: a terrified young traveling musician is chased into the abbey church by a bloodthirsty mob who accuse him of murder and theft. The supposedly murdered man turns out to be alive and well, but soon there’s a second attack which ends in death, and the accused can only claim the sanctuary of the holy place for forty days: after that he must leave the abbey and face his accusers. Can Cadfael prove him innocent in that time? Well, yes, obviously. Stakes are raised here; for the first time in the series, the killer is a woman, which seems like a natural extension of acknowledging female agency as these books do, and her motives are strongly connected to the precariousness of an unmarried medieval woman’s economic and social position in her father’s household. Highly enjoyable.

The Great Passion, by James Runcie (2022): Set in Leipzig between 1726 and 1727, with a kind of frame story that takes place nearly thirty years later, this is narrated by Stefan Silbermann. He has recently lost his mother and his father has packed him off to the school connected to St Thomas’s church, to acquire some educational and musical polish as a choirboy. (I’m not sure if he was a real historical figure or not; there’s no authorial note at the end to clarify.) Catching the eye of the Cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, Silbermann is taken into the Bach household and becomes one of the choir’s star treble soloists. After a family tragedy, Bach begins to compose the St. Matthew Passion—possibly the greatest achievement in the Western classical canon—and Stefan’s perspective gets us up close and personal to the creation of this immense work. I very much liked the concept of this (it ticks a lot of my boxes: music in fiction, the eighteenth century), but the execution was—while competent and capable—not all it could have been. The frame narrative makes it difficult to tell how much of Stefan’s self-awareness comes from his older self, so I’ll give that a pass, but the writing about music felt a little rote. Runcie obviously loves Bach and you’d have to listen to the SMP a million times to even start describing it, but unlike, say, Richard Powers in The Time of Our Singing, there’s not much sense of the quality of individual voices and tones, and Runcie relies heavily on reproducing and translating lines of the Passion text, instead of engaging with the characteristics inherent to Bach’s music. Such are the pitfalls of trying to write about an art form that you’re not trained in. I think for most historical fiction readers, this would be a fine reading experience; I was just hoping for a bit more, and I’ve read fiction that engages with music better on its own terms.

The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Vol. 1 (1825): PhD reading. Harriette Wilson was the courtesan whose attempt to blackmail her former lover, the Duke of Wellington, prompted his famous reply: “Publish and be damned!” And she did. I’m reading the Memoirs through a digitized copy of the second edition in the British Library’s collections which comes in four volumes; most semi-modern editions seem to have compressed it into two. She starts with the crackerjack line “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven”, and never lets up. It’s not at all hard to see why people enjoyed her company enough to pay for it: she’s extremely funny, very irreverent, can turn almost anything to a joke, observes other people with the eye of the pencil sketcher or even caricaturist. From my perspective, particularly interesting are the segments in which she bitches about her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale (within the text!!), and talks about her process of composition, including Stockdale’s advice to revise and polish as little as possible, since the public can get that kind of writing anywhere; her USP should be the immediacy and promised intimacy of her text. Fascinating. (Oh, and another incident in which she meets and provides charity to a dying street prostitute—one high-end sex worker colliding with another at the bottom of the scale, although Wilson never frames it that way, for obvious reasons. There’s a lot to think about in those scenes.) I’m partway through digitized volume 2 now and will get back to it next week.

13 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany 19

  1. I know I ought to read The Grass is Singing at some point, but it never seems to be the right time. I hope you manage to find something that suits your mood very soon!

  2. I’ve only read the first Cadfael mystery – I do still intend to read more of them, but have been distracted by other books! I’m glad you’re enjoying working through the series.

    1. That’s usually exactly what happens to me with series—reading the first and then getting sidetracked by other titles—but these are all so readily available for free that I can work through them.

  3. Totally agree with your thoughts on what summer reading should be! I just re-read Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone and Virginia Euwer Wolff’s True Believer – both child/teenage faves – which were perfect.

  4. I’ve had The Great Passion out from the library twice, but never managed to actually open it and was afraid it would fail to engage me, like so much historical fiction has of late. Sounds like I’m not missing anything unmissable.

    You don’t need my permission to read whatever you feel like reading and not what you think you should (PhD stuff aside) 🙂

    1. Sadly it feels a bit like a missed opportunity, although it’s absolutely fine historical fiction, by no means bad or incapable or whatever. Thank you for your encouraging words! Sometimes just acknowledging the slump is enough; I read The Grass is Singing (most of it) today, and loved it.

      1. I’ve heard the Martha Quest/Children of Violence series is quite good? I was put off her for a long time because the first thing she published after I became book-world-conscious was The Cleft, in 2007, which even at sixteen or so struck me as potentially grossly gender-essentialist (nowadays we’d say transphobic, I think).

      2. I’ve not got on with her speculative/dystopian stuff. I do want to try the Martha Quest books and The Diaries of Jane Somers — her autofiction should be more up my street.

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