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.
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 rumLike a sailor in a slumYou will find me drinking beer like a BavarianYou will find me drinking ginIn the lowest kind of innBecause I am a rigid Vegetarian.
Available from Project Gutenberg.
Richard Howard/RH 🖤 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
|The August books that are still around the house|