Books I read this week: May week 4

A lot of this week’s reading was practice in accepting books for what they are rather than what I wanted them to be.

The Snow Queen: A Novel by Michael Cunningham is not The Hours. That’s a shame, because The Hours was a sublime reading experience. When I finished it I literally opened the book again and started over. It is my most re-read book of the last 12 years (5 times). The Snow Queen has some beautiful sentences but the characters are not terribly complex, and though I felt like I should be moved, I wasn’t. It’s the story of two brothers who are dealing with the illness and death of their wife/sister-in-law. One uses cocaine to cope, the other saw a bright light in the sky that he believes to be the eye of God, and kind of turns to religion.  The story kind of reminded me of Rent, but without the characters I love- maybe that’s part of my disappointment. But it also just felt not completely developed. I’m sure Cunningham could see the point clearly in his mind, but I couldn’t get to it. It felt like a snapshot of their life that then ended. I didn’t get a feeling that he came to a point about drugs or God or grief. Given the title, I also expected more of a tie in with the fairy tale, but that was  fuzzy. Unfortunately this one just didn’t connect for me.

There is, it seems, some law of myth-physics that requires tragic outcomes of granted wishes.

Beth frowns at her crumb of toast. Tyler reaches across the tabletop, puts his hand on her pale forearm. He didn’t expect to feel quite so incompetent at tending to Beth, quite so unsure about almost everything he says and does. The best he can manage, usually, is trying simply to accompany her as the changes occur.


A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is the book that the new Ian McKellen movie Mr. Holmes is based on. It’s concerned with Sherlock Holmes as an elderly man, retired from detection. The preview looks amazing- from it one can infer that the story is about memory and how it fails us, and how that would affect someone whose identity is based in their intelligence and memory. There also seems to be a discovery of a wrongly solved case- something that Holmes missed because of his focus on rationality over emotion, that he realizes later because he has more experience.  That’s what I was expecting when I picked this book for our book club, and it is not what I got.  The book is made up of three intertwined stories. The first is the current moment where Holmes is living in retirement with a housekeeper and her son. He keeps bees and lives a quiet life. He has recently returned from a trip to Japan, and the details of that trip make up the second story. He is also in the process of writing an account of a case he solved as a much younger man, and that is the third story. There’s nothing like reading something and expecting a twist when there isn’t one. All three of the stories are pretty straightforward, and though there are intersections between them, the connections aren’t transcendent in any way. Again, I felt like I was missing the blooming of overriding themes, and it just didn’t sing for me.

During his travels, every now and then, Holmes would again sense an immense want permeating human existence, the true nature of which he couldn’t fully comprehend.

It seems- or rather- it’s that sometimes- sometimes things occur beyond our own understanding, my dear, and the unjust reality is that these events- being so illogical to us, devoid of whatever reason we might attach to them- are exactly what they are and, regrettably, nothing else- and I believe- I truly believe that that is the hardest notion for any of us to live with.

Dark Sparkler byAmber Tamblyn, in contrast to those that came before, is exactly as good as I was expecting. Tamblyn is the Amber Tamblyn you’re thinking of, the actress from the Traveling Pants movies and others. I actually haven’t seen any of her movies, but my goodness is she a skilled poet. This collection focuses on the theme of actresses who died young, obviously a topic close to Tamblyn’s heart. Each poem is titled for a deceased (or could be deceased) young actress, and Tamblyn explains that she tried to inhabit them- to take on their role- in order to write the poems. Many of the poems are titled for more obscure actresses, but I didn’t find that distracting in any way- in fact it made them more poignant as the experiences tumbled together in a tribute to these lost girls and women. I really can’t do her work justice, it is just so incredibly good. Her images are precise and heartbreaking, and her insights into the Hollywood process are devastating. I really can’t recommend this one highly enough.

She wants to know if I’ve heard

about the role opposite the handsome future failure,

am I getting in line

to lose weight for the seventh-chance director


But first she said, I’m sorry, Charles, it’s over between us,

tied together the sheets of their love letters,

climbed out the window of his soul.

It’s possible that I was holding Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis to unreasonable expectations. I read and loved her enormous Collected Stories compilation last year, and I was expecting to love this one as much. Some of the stories were absolute knockouts for me, but there were some that just didn’t connect for me. Maybe it’s just me this week, I don’t know. But she is a master of the short story craft, and I am on a quest to read everything she’s ever written.

I think a lot of people, when they pick out a gift, twist the facts optimistically.

That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died, I know that, and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by- but now it’s time for you to come back. You have been away long enough.

There are times when I realize that I have specific, perhaps odd, interests and reading The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley was one of them. This is hands down one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I want everyone I know to read it, it’s so interesting. But I know full well that it likely wouldn’t be as interesting to other people, and I suppose that’s fine, they’re just wrong. 🙂

Worsley tracks the history of murder as topic for entertainment in England- from the time of penny dreadfuls and melodramas that detailed lurid accounts of fictional and non-fictional murders, through the formation of the Metropolitan Police Department and its accompanying Detective department (which is seriously SO interesting), to Jack the Ripper and private detectives and the rise of poisons and Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock and all my favorite things. Seriously, I don’t know that there’s a book that exists that covers more of my favorite topics. It’s an excellent social history through the lens of murder, which is a surprisingly clear reflection of the masses’ views and fears. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year. Plus it provided me with the name of an arch nemesis/mad scientist/evil villain for an upcoming book, which is just marvelous.

“When the moralists cite the modern murder mystery as evidence of an unnatural love of violence in a decadent age, I wonder if it is nothing of the sort, but rather a  sign of a popular instinct for order and form in a period of sudden and chaotic change?” – Margery Allingham on the popularity of the detective novel of the Golden Age

Murderesses had something to teach. When female newspaper readers could read the reported words of Florence Bravo- “I told him he had no right to treat me in such a way”- and see her go unpunished, something small but significant changed in society.

These feelings- horror, awe, a sense of danger viewed from safety- would come to the fore in the art and literature of the Romantic movement, with its exultation of the sublime, the untamed and the dangerous. They would also become necessary parts of the experience of enjoying a murder.

Now I’m trying to decide what to read next. What are you reading?

4 thoughts on “Books I read this week: May week 4

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