Saturday, September 18, 2021

August wrapup (and summer reading)

My August reading (and looking at that #20booksofsummer list, ha, ha...)

Like most blogger memes, monthly summaries turns out to be another I'm pretty sporadic about doing.

The Mystery Department

Which was Philo Vance by S. S. Van Dine this month. I recently discovered that the whole series is available at Project Gutenberg Australia. Are they legal in Canada? I dunno. But I downloaded the ones I hadn't read and then read three of them.

Philo Vance may be an idle aesthete, but he's effective in tracking down murderers.

"If you will refer to the municipal statistics of the City of New York, you will find that the number of unsolved major crimes during the four years that John F.-X. Markham was district attorney, was far smaller than under any of his predecessors' administrations." [Benson Murder Case, Introductory]

Philo Vance was the reason why. 

The Benson Murder Case (#1 in the series, 1926)

Alvin Benson was a Wall Street broker and man about town; he was shot one night at home in the forehead. Harassed actresses and jealous boyfriends make up a good collection of suspects, but as the police go through one suspect after another, Vance keeps insisting the psychology is wrong. Until it isn't.

The Scarab Murder Case (#5 in the series, 1930)

Benjamin Kyle is a philanthropist financing an expedition to excavate in Egypt. Early one morning his head is crushed by the statue of an Egyptian god and the dead hand is clutching an ancient scarab. The curse of the old gods for looting pyramids? Or a more terrestrial murderer? Howard Carter & King Tut's tomb weren't so far in the past at this point. Vance is once again mostly tasked with keeping the police from arresting the wrong person, but in this case the actual murderer is doing his best to frame somebody else, anybody else. 

The Dragon Murder Case (#7 in the series, 1933)

In an old estate on the north end of Manhattan, there's a swimming pool formed from a river. (Think Tryon Hall, now Fort Tryon Park.) Sanford Montague dives into the pool and never comes up. A few days later his body is found a couple of miles away. Murder? Or accident with a clumsy attempt to hide the outcome? Or is it the dragon of Lenape legend? 

The solution depends on the latest in technology in 1933, which was also true of 1927's The Canary Murder Case, probably my favorite in the series and an excellent locked-room murder.

However. "Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pants," wrote Ogden Nash, and it's kind of true. I enjoy the series and it's historically important, but. Willard Wright, for whom S. S. Van Dine was a pseudonym, was also an art critic while under one of his other hats, and there's far more art history than any of the mysteries require. There may be some use to discussions of Egypt's 17th dynasty in The Scarab Murder Case, but mostly you have to just like the long digressions for their own sake. I don't entirely mind them myself. But what's pretty continuously hard to take is Wright's inability to write dialog that sounds like anything an actual human being might speak.

I knew early Ellery Queen was quite influenced by Philo Vance, but what struck me in these was how much Rex Stout was paying attention, too. And it's not just that there's a butler who cooks!

In the Time of Nero

My Classics Club spin book was Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis. That sent me off to Petronius' Satyricon and Tacitus' Annals. Thoughts were written up here.

The Poetry Department

Richard Crashaw/Selected Poems

Crashaw (1613-1649) was the son of a Puritan sympathizer, but he became a high-church Anglican and eventually a Catholic. Not a politically astute move for an Englishman in those years, Crashaw fled to France and then died in the Papal States. 

Crashaw considered George Herbert his poetic master, which shows good taste as far as I'm concerned. Very much a metaphysical, with elaborate conceits: one poem voices the tears that Mary Magdalene cried. A couple of impressive long poems devoted to Teresa of Avila.

The edition I read was selected by Michael Cayley for Fyfield Books (Carcanet Press) in 1972. He wrote a useful introduction.

H. D./Sea Garden
H. D./Hymen

These early volumes of H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) are available at Project Gutenberg. I've got a couple other volumes of hers in hand. I like her handling of classical allusions, but I'm not going to say much at the moment.

G. K. Chesterton/Wine, Women, and Song

Ahem. Not very politically correct, and not just in the ways suggested by the title. (The en passant anti-Semitism was pretty hard to swallow.) Still, he's a skilled versifier and there was some amusing stuff in it:

You will find me drinking rum
Like a sailor in a slum
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

Available from Project Gutenberg. 

Richard Howard/RH đź–¤   HJ

New York Review Poets volume. It draws from Howard's career as a poet of fifty years. (He's also a translator, of E. M. Cioran among others.) HJ is Henry James, and a number of the poems selected concern James in some way. I find Richard Howard very good, but I'm not sure this is the selection of his poems I would have made. Quoted from it here.

Women in Translation Month

Two by Amélie Nothomb (Thirst, Tokyo Fiancée). Thoughts here.

Dorthe Nors/Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

It's possible I'll still say more about this, but I haven't yet.

Sonja Hansen lives in Copenhagen and is the translator of (imaginary) Swedish thriller writer Gösta Svensson. She's 40 or so and wants to get a driver's license so she's a little freer to go where she wants, but she suffers from positional vertigo--if she swings her head too fast, she gets dizzy and disoriented. She thinks about doing yoga, gets massages, feels like a country mouse (she's from rural Jutland) in the big city of Copenhagen. Not much happens, but that's kind of the point.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker International in 2017, but lost to David Grossman's A Horse Walks Into a Bar. That was also the year of Mathias Énard's Compass.

Some Other International Fiction

Jose Maria Eça de Queiroz/The Yellow Sofa

A novella by the 19th Century Portuguese realist. The merchant Godofredo da Conceiçao Alves discovers the younger partner in his firm is having an affair with his wife. What to do? A duel is just one of several possibilities. 

I thought this was very good. It's the first of his I've read, but I've now got several more from the library.

Stanislaw Lem/Fiasco

An expedition from Earth to a distant star system sets out with the idea of making contact with an alien civilization. No humans have ever been in contact with any aliens before--this is a story of first contact. The title gives away the outcome, but how it fails and why are the questions of the novel.

It would be Lem's hundredth birthday this year, leading to overviews. Lem is almost always a science-fiction writer, but he ranges from scientifically hard to fabular, from serious to uproariously funny. I liked this, though I didn't think it was his best--it took a little while to really get going. It's on the serious, more technologically-minded end of his spectrum.

Sholem Aleichem/In The Storm

Quite good, I thought. More here.

So that's a month's worth of reading for me. As for that 20 Books of Summer, as you might guess from this one month's reading, I read twenty books. But as for that list, umm...eleven, plus two I had suggested I might read. Ah, well...

The August books that are still around the house

Senhor Dorsey decided I wasn't using his service properly--probably by not using it enough--so there's a new Twitter account follow button...


  1. classy list... i really liked Philo Vance. Gutenberg AU has some terrific books, did you get into Roy Glashan's library? lots of old but golden moldies, there... i like what you said about Lem... i've read a bit of Crashaw; prefer Vaughn, tho... not been familiar with most of the Argentinian authors. maybe i'm saving them until i'm ready? anyway, great post and wonderful selections; you have a talent for that, choosing good books, i mean... tx for all the work, posting and all...

    1. I've seen the Roy Glashan's Library but haven't fully explored what they have, but it does look there's some good stuff there. I probably prefer Vaughan, too, but I enjoyed the Crashaw--I'd only read a little bit before in a Metaphysicals anthology I had. Trying to read more poetry these days--good for the brain? (Or maybe not...)

      Anyway, thank you for reading! (What was probably too long a post...)

  2. Congratulations on your fantastic reading summer. I have nothing to brag about but it's nice to read about what others have read. I feel like I'm torn between reading lighter literature and more dense stuff lately. It looks like you're getting a nice balance. Bravo!

    1. Thanks! Hope you had a good reading summer as well--and hope to see some blogging about it!

      I also feel the tension between reading light and dense, though I don't know that it really ought to be a tension: I think you need both. Anyway, I know I swap off between them & I think you do, too--and I think that's a good thing.

      Hope you survived the recent (and clearly unnecessary) election...

    2. I never feel like I'm reading as much as I want to in the last 5 years. It's frustrating but I'm trying to take comfort that I am reading more lately.

      I used to read more heavier literature than light, which I liked. Now it's reversed and I don't really like it but somehow that's what's happening, so .....

      Oh my! I was just listening to a Jordan B. Petersen podcast with Rex Murphy and Murphy asked, "is this a country or a playground?" Funny but so true. Trudeau has been handing out money right, left and centre with no accountability because of the closures of Parliament due to COVID. In one's own household, If one kept spending money that one didn't have but kept borrowing it, would one think that would turn out well?! I don't understand why people can't see it. And the whole COVID thing. If one actually received some facts without relying on the news and social media channels which censor and propagandize everything, things might look much different than they now appear. In any case, glad to hear that you're reading so much! You inspire me! Take care!

    3. I find a couple of light things sometimes gets my groove back, though what I'd really like right now is some large great novel I could sink into. Maybe I should reread War and Peace!

      Also to you, keep well! We'll see what happens, but more of the same, I suspect. I thought Trudeau did ok with the pandemic (we could have been the US...) but the election was so unnecessary. I'm perfectly happy he didn't get what he wanted.

    4. War and Peace sounds like a great idea! Tolstoy is someone who would be nice to spend time with during these crazy times!

      You should listen to the Jordan B. Peterson podcast and see what you think. He's appears to be doing well because much of the accountability that Parliament brings has been removed because of COVID restrictions. I've heard that no one really knows all that's been going on in the past couple of years. He just keeps spending, spending, spending and that's never good. As for the fallout from the pandemic, my feeling is that we haven't seen anything yet. But at least we can read which gives a wonderful break from the day-to-day nuttiness!

  3. I found the podcast, but I haven't listened to it yet. It's an hour! (Actually I'm not much of a podcast person--I signed up for a bunch of them years ago when they first started happening and then never listened to any of them...)

    But I will say I was OK with spending in this context. Once you've asked (or told) people to quit working for reasons of public health, it's only fair to do something for them. It's not like my haircutter or the guy who owns the eat-in pizza place we like wanted to quit working.

  4. If you're seriously thinking of rereading W&P, writer Yiyun Li did a reread and posted about her experience; it tempted me as well (although it's not something I'd really thought about previously).

    Glad you've enjoyed the summer reading you chose, even if it wasn't exactly as you thought when looking forward to the summer. I've been reading even more than usual, trying to spend less time with a screen, and that's left me feeling ever more grateful for the public library and (mostly) peaceful surroundings.

    1. The library's been great--I can't imagine places where it's been shut down for a year.

      I am feeling the need for some large book. I'm not yet really sure what it's going to be.