Thursday, September 13, 2012

hung on like grim death

I stumbled upon a terrific poem by Theodore Roethke while looking around the Internet for the etymology of this idiom, My Papa's Waltz (copyrighted in 1942); his version is, "But I hung on like death."  Click <here> for a link to the full poem, posted with permission on the Poetry Foundation's website.

Bryan and Mieder's 2005 A Dictionary of Anglo-American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases found in Literary Sources from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries lists the earliest literary reference from Bret Harte, in his 1884 Tales of the Argonauts: On the Frontier (available on Project Gutenberg), "Well, I hung on like grim death."

Various online student study guides note Shakespeare uses the adjective "grim" with a different meaning in his Taming of the Shrew, Induction, Scene 1 (pasted in from MIT's Shakespeare website), in "Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image" - for comedic rather than tragic effect:

What's here? one dead, or drunk? See, doth he breathe?

Second Huntsman
He breathes, my lord. Were he not warm'd with ale,
This were a bed but cold to sleep so soundly.

O monstrous beast! how like a swine he lies!
Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

raring to go

Naturally I'm not the only one out there who pondered such obscure things as the etymology of the phrase, "raring to go."  In my Internet search, I came across another blogger's posting regarding this most fascinating topic, "Etymology On the Go" by The Fryside.  He beat me by about four years.

I thought I'd go into more excruciating detail, though.

While most websites indicate that "raring" originated in the 1920s, the Oxford English Dictionary (site requires a subscription) provides an example of the use of "raring" as in "wild, angry; excited, spirited," dating back as far as 1845, in the American Whig Review (November issue, page 516), which I found online via Cornell University Library's Making of America site.  The American Whig Review was a "Whig journal of politics, literature, art, and science" per the Making of America site.

The quote is from an article titled, "Adventures on the Frontier of Texas and Mexico," by Charles Winterfield.  The text is actually pretty offensive by current standards, about beating up a woman and including racial slurs.  The text is meant to be amusing (I think).  Here's some excerpts:

“What do you mean, you scamp, by his woman wanting to steal his things!” said I – a good deal amused by this cute fashion of getting out of a scrape.

“Lor! ain’t you hearn yit?  Why, he went and tuck her by the hair and dragged her out’en her old dad’s house, and he wooled her, and he… [more descriptions of beating]… May-be he warn’t in a rarin [my italics] tarin tantrum and all just because the [offensive descriptions of the woman] got scairt and swom ‘cross the river when the Injuns comed!..."
For "raring" as in "eager, keen, fully ready to do something", like "raring to go", the Oxford English Dictionary provides a quote from B.M. Bower's Cabin Fever, a Western, published in 1918, and available on Project Gutenberg's site.

Feet came hurrying. Two voices mumbled together. "Here he is," said one. "That's the number I gave him." Bud felt some one step hurriedly upon the running board. The tonneau door was yanked open. A man puffed audibly behind him. "Yuh ready?" Foster's voice hissed in Bud's ear.
"R'aring to go [my italics]." Bud heard the second man get in and shut the door, and he jerked the gear lever into low. His foot came gently back with the clutch, and the car slid out and away.

Interesting that an apostrophe is inserted in "r'aring to go"... dropping the "o" in "roaring to go".

Bower apparently wrote some 57 Westerns in all from 1904 to 1941.  Wikipedia has a brief description of her.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

an unexciting post

Yeah, this one's anticlimatic at best, a brief review of a lecture series I just finished listening to.  Apologies to The Great Courses and Professor Brooks Landon because, though this post isn't about Nigel, I really enjoyed Landon's "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft", produced by The Great Courses / The Teaching Company.

Landon brings into question the popular notion that sentences should be as short as possible, instead suggesting that long sentences can be the vehicle for creating a more exact as well as nuanced expression of the writer's mind.  He goes into detail about what elements make long sentences bad - and give them a bad name, and then goes into even more detail about elements that can make long sentences work in a way that short sentences simply can't.

He reminded me that there is a true art and craft to writing well - though what that means can be subjective - and, hack writer that I am, even I can aspire to write better.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Patrick Grim - Philosophy of Mind

I just finished listening to Professor Patrick Grim'sPhilosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines, produced by The Teaching Company.  It gets high marks from me.

The lectures, themselves, were really seamlessly organized, spanning such a wide range of disciplines, philosophy, psychology, ethics, artificial intelligence, computer science, science and medicine (and more).

He begins with Descartes' dream that eventually science would "make clear the different realms of matter and mind," and Descartes' theory of Dualism.  From there, Grim explores the rationale, controversies, and extrapolations related to Dualism and the relationship between the brain and the mind, including the implications and connections to computers and artificial intelligence.

It's really an impressive, thoughtful overview, drawing on historical origins then moving into current thoughts and ideas, ultimately asking more questions than providing answers, and reflecting the richness of the field of contemporary philosophy of mind.

I think my brain exploded in the process of listening, but it may have only been a subjective impression.

Several years ago I listened to his other Teaching Company lecture series, Questions of Value, which I also thought was excellent.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Georgette Heyer - Bath Tangle

I'm in complete awe of Georgette Heyer now after finishing Bath Tangle (1955).  She somehow manages to write a romance in which the two main characters' story, the "real" story, hovers at the edges of the plot, insidiously and inexorably weaving its way in.  Heyer truly has a masterful light touch, relying mostly on dialogue and interaction amongst various characters and almost none on characters' internal reflection.  It's brilliant.  She creates a charming and believable romance between two flawed but likable characters, and does so with no mushy love scenes until toward the end (and nothing steamy).  What's more amazing is that the two protagonists spend the majority of the book either separate or, when together, arguing and losing their tempers.  And yet Heyer completely pulls it off.

Well, there are some convenient plot devices that help get the job done, too, but they're easily forgiven since the story is, after all, a comedy.  Heyer can also get away with coincidences and other fortunate happenings because the backbone of the story is her astute psychological insight into the motivations of especially the two protagonists.

The story centers around Lady Serena Spenborough ("Serena" is truly an ironic name; she's a firebrand), opening with the unexpected and untimely death of her beloved father, the Earl of Spenborough.  He leaves behind a very young wife, Fanny, who is at least several years younger than her twenty-five year old step-daughter.  His considerably estate is passed on by entailment to Serena's cousin, and so Serena and Fanny must relocate, first to the Dower House, and then to Bath after they start dying of boredom and vexation at the Dower House.  Serena is also incensed to learn that her father, quite the eccentric, has placed Serena's own inheritance in a trust controlled by Ivo, Marquis of Rotherham, a friend of Lord Spenborough's and the man Serena jilted several years ago.

The story really takes off once they settle in Bath and the entanglements begin in earnest.

As usual, Heyer has a cast of truly amusing and colorful secondary characters, and infuses the novel with historical tidbits regarding Regency era politics and ton gossip.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

cold fish

Oftentimes when I'm doing some of my fiction writing different idioms pop up from somewhere in the nether regions of my brain, and naturally I start wondering where they originated, like "cold fish", for example. That one just came up.  Luckily, the Internet provides instant gratification (assuming the reference source is accurate)...

I found information at about it, which also listed its references (other dictionaries - maybe an infinite regression of them?).  Apparently it was William Shakespeare who coined the term, in The Winter's Tale, spoken by Autolycus, the peddler, Act IV, Scene IV, who's peddling ballads:

"Here's another ballad, of a fish that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was thought she was a woman, and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her. The ballad is very pitiful, and as true."

Maybe the guy who loved her was fishy or looked like a fish, and that's why she rejected him (I'm assuming it's a guy that got rejected since the ballad is about the "hard hearts of maids").

According to, though, the term only caught on in the 1900s.  I wonder what that story was.  The only reference I could find was in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, which lists the term as in popular use in the 1930s.

On a related note, a website I really like to use to read up on idioms and phrases is The Phrase Finder.  "Cold fish" wasn't in their database, though.

Friday, June 15, 2012

John McWhorter - The Story of Human Language

The latest from my lecture-listening is from The Great Courses series, The Story of Human Language, given by Professor John McWhorter now of Columbia University.  I've really enjoyed the Great Courses over the years, and this one was definitely no exception.

McWhorter provides what I thought was quite a comprehensive overview of language in all its diversity and similarities, reviewing the development, evolution, and devolution of language, and the various controversies and topical interests as of 2004, when the lectures were produced.  I can see why The Teaching Company had him contribute to their productions; he's a very engaging lecturer.  I even got to learn some about his cat, Laura, who likes to sit in his open suitcase when he's trying to pack.  Sadly, though, at this point, I have no idea in what context he mentioned his cat, other than it may have had something to do with why critters - and humans - do idiosyncratic things...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Josephine Tey - Brat Farrar

I just finished re-reading Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, published in 1950.  Talk about masterful.  Wow.  Funny, I mis-remembered the plot from when I last read it, which was something like a bazzilion years ago.

Brat Farrar, an itinerant orphan, carries an uncanny resemblance to Simon Ashby, who is about to turn 21 and inherit his family's country estate.  Brat is drawn into the Ashby family circle, posing as Patrick Ashby, Simon's older twin, who was thought to have committed suicide at the age of 13.

The mystery isn't about whether Brat is Patrick - it's a given that he isn't - but rather gradually uncovers the unanswered questions around Patrick Ashby's death and culminating in quite a shocking conclusion.

Yet much of the story centers around Brat's impersonation - his motivation for doing so, his ongoing ethical struggles about it, and his interactions with the other characters.  This aspect of the story is compelling and done in a believable way.  The different characters are so wonderfully drawn out.  It's easy to get complacent as reader and think that's all it's about.  All along, though, Tey is maneuvering the reader to the point of realizing that there is a mystery to be solved, gradually building up an undercurrent of danger and menace.

Reading this book made me have the unoriginal thought that writers (and aspiring writers) have it both easier and more difficult than genre writers from the past.  Earlier writers were essentially inventing the genre, and having to invent much more on their own, while many writers now can get away with being a derivative or piecemeal of earlier works, shifting and rearranging characters and plot elements like building blocks or a jigsaw puzzle with different solutions.

On the flip side of that argument, why it might be more difficult now, so many variations on theme, ingenious twists in plot and characters, and genre-crossing have been exhausted already that it's hard to come up with anything that seems fresh enough to capture interest.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Anthony Hope - The Prisoner of Zenda

I listened to the audio version of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, narrated by James Wilby, and completely fell in love with James Wilby's voice.  I've listened to audio versions of other books and this really was the best, hands down.  I'm not sure if I'd have enjoyed the book half as much if I read the printed version.  Wilby captured the "voice" of the main character brilliantly, in addition to all the other characters, and had fantastic pacing.

Originally published in 1894, the story, itself, is a rather fun adventure, though the star-crossed love part of it is a little too overwrought for me (this said by an aspiring paranormal romance writer, right?).

It's the story of an indolent English gentleman, Rudolf Rassendyll, whose ancestry can be traced on the wrong side of the blanket to the Royal House of Elphberg, which rules the (made-up) country of Ruritania.  He bears an uncanny resemblance to his cousin and the man who is about to be crowned King Rudolf V.  Rudolf R. pays a visit to Ruritania and soon becomes entangled in a plot by the King's brother, "Black Michael", who wants the throne for himself.  Rudolf finds himself impersonating the King in efforts to thwart Black Michael, and sword fights and other daring deeds ensue.  Rudolf also falls head-over-heels for the noble Princess Flavia (this is the star-crossed love part of the story).

I guess I like happy endings, and so (*spoiler alert*) wasn't completely satisfied with the bittersweet ending of this one, particularly when I discovered that it's even less of a happy ending in the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (well, I guess it depends on how "happy ending" is defined.  If dying "honorably" is happy, then I guess it was... though maybe an ongoing struggle with ambiguity would have been more interesting).

The ruthless, daring, and ever charming Rupert of Hentzau, by the way, steals the show from under the feet of the noble hero, Rudolf, in The Prisoner of Zenda. Rupert struck me as a precursor to the typical hero of romance novels being written now - or, rather, Rupert if he fell in love and was somehow reformed by it.

I found an interesting website, The Ruritanian Resistance, pointing out certain ironies regarding King Rudolf V.  Perhaps Black Michael was not as black as he's painted.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Patricia Wentworth - Wicked Uncle

Twenty year old Dorinda Brown takes on a job in post-WWII Britain as secretary to the fragile and rather useless Linnet Oakley, who can't seem to do much but lounge around in a filmy negligee.  In her capacity as secretary, Dorinda is invited to a house party of the Oakleys' neighbor, Gregory Porlock, who is also a business partner of Linnet Oakley's husband, Martin.  Greg Porlock turns out to be none other than Glen Porteous, Dorinda's "Wicked Uncle", who abused her aunt and ran off with all her money.  Dorinda last saw him some seven years ago, and the aunt had since passed away (from other causes).

Greg Porlock has decided to invite all the people he's in the process of blackmailing to the house party.  This includes not only Linnet Oakley, but a handful of others.  What's surprising is that Greg Porlock managed to not win the Darwin Award years ago.  Still, it's an opportunity for the house guests to all become suspects in a murder case.

The incomparable Maud Silver, a private enquiry agent and consummate knitter, who managed to save Dorinda from one of the Wicked Uncle's nefarious schemes, is invited by Dorinda to help solve the murder, which she does with her usual aplomb.

There's some great characters in this one, including the truly horrible Marty Oakley, the six year old progeny of Linnet and Martin Oakley, and the literally crooked "entertainer" and traitor to the Crown, Leonard Carroll.  I wondered while I was reading the book who or what inspired this particular character; he was different than her typical stand-bys.

There's also a charming love story interwoven in it, between Dorinda and her elegant older cousin, Justin Leigh, though this gets put on hold after the preliminaries in order to focus on the murder plot line.

In all, I thought Wicked Uncle standard Patricia Wentworth fare, a rather fun, light read.  If anything, it was a bit more complex than some of her other stories, as the different suspects all have their own backdrop stories and motivations for wanting to murder their blackmailer.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Georgette Heyer - Pistols for Two

I'm a big fan of Georgette Heyer's mysteries and romances.  I think she's truly one of the masters of a genre she largely pioneered, Regency romance not written by authors living in Regency Britain.  Her Regency romance novels sparkle with wit, romance, and fun, while, as far as I can tell, remaining true to the historical context (as much it is possible for a "contemporary" author - she wrote from the 1920s to the early 1970s) .

Pistols for Two, a compilation of eleven of her Regency-era short stories, mostly romances, doesn't disappoint.  She effectively distills into the short story format what she does in her novels, no easy feat. Heyer is amazingly economic and effective, effortlessly establishing the characters and their dilemma from the get-go - then bringing the story to its delightful happy ending. Many of the stories are elements of what shows up in her novels, with the same themes, plots, and characters types, and I suspect that they may have been precursors to later novels.  Although these elements are familiar to any reader of Heyer's novels, the stories remain fresh and thoroughly enjoyable in their own right. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Journeys of the Great Explorers: Columbus to Cook

I just finished listening to this very cool series of lectures, Journeys of the Great Explorers: Columbus to Cook, given by Glyndwr Williams of the University of London, produced by The Modern Scholar.

It begins with Marco Polo in the fourteenth century and concludes in the late eighteenth century with James Cook.  The lectures focus on the maritime explorers, tracing the perils and progress of these various explorers as they sought to explore and exploit new territories for personal and national economic gain.

I thought Dr. Williams provided a fair-handed as well as compelling portrait of the explorers, Columbus, Drake, Dampier, Bering, and Cook, to name a few, and the historical context of their voyages.  He also brought vividly to life a sense of the conditions in which they sailed, in all its brutality and daring.

Listening to the series made me want to learn more... Must be a sign of how much I enjoyed it, though I never would have guessed that I'd find maritime exploration so interesting.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart - The Man in Lower Ten

From my sampling of four of her novels, it seems like Rinehart either has hapless, bumbling male narrators or (overly) self-confident, supposedly competent female narrators.  I couldn't get through the fourth book I tried, The Buckled Bag, whose narrator fit into the latter category.

I really liked The Man in Lower Ten (with one of the bumbling male narrators), which I just finished.

The Man in Lower Ten is narrated by Lawrence "Lollie" Blakeley, a 30 year old attorney, who's interested in sports and little else; he has a well-deserved and self-described reputation for being indifferent to women, in particular.  He's charged with transporting some important material evidence in a legal case, some forged papers, by train.  There's a murder on the very same train he's traveling on, and he becomes implicated.  To top it off, the papers he's carrying, along with his other possessions, are stolen.  Just when it couldn't get any worse, the train is struck by another train; there's a horrible smash-up, and a number of people are killed.  He's one of the few survivors.  He spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out the complex strands involving the stolen papers, the murdered man, and a number of mysterious characters who figure into the case, and at the same time escape being arrested for the murder, himself.  He falls in love for the first time while he's at it.

I thought The Man in Lower Ten was very well-crafted, with a number of quirky, interesting characters who really added to the story.  The love story was probably the least "realistic" of the various plotlines.

Of the three Rineholt mysteries I've read (the others being The Circular Staircase and The Window at the White Cat), I thought this one the best.  Like the others, it's not so much designed to solve the mystery along with some savvy investigator; rather, critical evidence - particularly confessionals - don't pull it together until the final chapters.  The bulk of the story is involved in running down blind alleys, back-tracking, and starting again, and the suspense and humor that accompanies the process.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart - The Circular Staircase

Before I began The Circular Staircase, I happened to see the Publisher's Note on the copyright page of the edition I'm reading (The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 2002): "The books... were written in the early twentieth century and carry language and attitudes typical of the time.  This edition... does not reflect the attitudes of the editors or publishers..."  After beginning the story I quickly saw the reason for the disclaimer; there are a number of racial and class stereotypes that figure in the story, which to current sensibilities are really unpalatable.  It took away some from my enjoyment of it, though, much to my relief, Rinehart eased off on all the quaking, cowardly servants as the story progressed.

The Circular Staircase is narrated by a well-to-do "middle-aged spinster", Rachel Innes, who encounters murder and mystery when she rents a country estate for the summer. It is the no-good Arnold Armstrong, son of the absent owners of the estate, who is found murdered in the house.  The fiance of the Rachel's niece, John "Jack" Baily, is implicated in the murder.  He works as a broker for the bank owned by Armstrong's father, and was on poor terms with Armstrong.  Things look even more bleak for Jack when he is also accused of embezzling and absconding with bank funds.  Almost everyone else around Rachel seems to be entangled in the murder and harboring secrets that may be the key to solving the mounting mysteries.  But the ultimate solution to the murder and the bank's troubles all seem to lie at the Armstrong estate, itself.  Our intrepid narrator is determined to solve the mystery with or without anyone's cooperation.

Overall, I enjoyed the read, especially once I was reconciled to its datedness and figured out that Rinehart may not necessarily mean the reader to solve the mystery until the end (when there's a confession), and that the point is to enjoy the suspense, thrills and chills.

Of note, the narrator is supposedly intelligent and brave (according to herself and the police imspector, who compliments her), though how she handles a number of situations and her tendency to faint away when confronted with dangerous situations made me wonder otherwise.  I guess heroines in the early 1900s are supposed to faint, at least as long as it's genuine (unlike the servants with their fake swooning).  But the narrator comes off, to me, at least, as a tad pompous and not as smart as she thinks she is.  I wasn't sure if Rinehart meant to be straight about the reliability of the narrator or was being somewhat ironic.  On the other hand, it's a fine line between trying to keep the mystery up without making the characters seem stupid; also, since Rinehart was writing over a hundred years ago, some conventions may have changed.

I did end up posting other versions of this on and

Monday, March 19, 2012

book review - The Improper Governess by Carola Dunn

The Improper Governess is the first book I've read by Carola Dunn.  It was originally published in 1998, but I just discovered it in ebook format; Carola Dunn in her blog notes that a number of her Regency romance novels, all published quite a number of years ago, are being re-released as ebooks; in the last decade she's gone away from Regency novels and has been writing"cozy" period mysteries.

The Improper Governess is more in the tradition of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, relying on romantic tension rather than steamy romantic scenes, an initial attraction that's thwarted, with various obstacles and opportunities to move the plot along to the happy ending.  The heroine is pretty, sweet, virtuous, intelligent, and brave.  The hero appears at first to "just" be a handsome, dangerous rake, but shows that he can be sweet in a manly way, virtuous once he falls for the heroine, intelligent, and brave. They both gradually begin to esteem and like the other, in addition to finding that they're also falling in love.

Like Georgette Heyer, Dunn clearly has clearly done her research into Regency England.  I wonder if she had originally been inspired by Heyer.

Set in Regency London, Lissa Findlay, the heroine, has been forced by circumstances to work as an opera dancer, barely supporting her two little brothers and herself.  She catches the attention of Lord Robert Ashe, who is looking for a new paramour.  Much to his surprise and chagrin, Lissa spurns his advances.  He, though, finds himself intrigued by her unusual circumstances and her bravery.  He ends up taking her and her two brothers into his household, where she serves as governess to his sickly, spoiled nephew.  Lissa does wonders for the nephew, who befriends her two brothers, as well.  She also finds herself hopelessly falling for Lord Ashe.  It seems to be a mutual thing, unbeknownst to the other.  It becomes a question whether love can overcome disapproving relatives and seemingly insurmountable extenuating circumstances.  The answer isn't too hard to guess (well, that and I already gave it away, didn't I?).

This was a delightful, light read, with amusing characters and situations, as well as some gentle angst.  I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer's Regency novels.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart; book review - The Window at the White Cat

The Window at the White Cat is the first novel I've read by Mary Roberts Rinehart.  I plan to read some of her others now.

I only stumbled upon Rinehart after listening to a recorded lecture series on detective fiction (Modern Scholar - Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present, given by M. Lee Alexander).  Rinehart was just briefly mentioned in the lecture series.  Apparently, though, she was quite a sensation in her time.  She wrote from 1908 all the way till 1953, and was read by Presidents and literary luminaries in addition to everyone else.  Some of her books were also adapted into plays and films.  The edition I'm reading, The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, includes four of her novels and an Introduction on the life and writing career of Rinehart; the Introduction is the primary source of my information regarding Rinehart, in addition to Wikipedia.

I find it rather interesting that Rinehart, renowned in her time and apparently something of a public figure, should now be relatively obscure, a brief mention in a lecture series on detective fiction and no one I'd heard of before.

Also of note, per the Introduction, it turns out that it's Rinehart's first four that are considered her "best" by "critics"(I'm not sure who, though), "more carefully crafted" than later works.

The Window at the White Cat is narrated by the rather hapless but earnest Jack Knox, an attorney, who is drawn into some mysterious disappearances and ultimately political corruption, suicide, and murder.  Our purported hero bumbles his way through, trying to find clues and make sense of them, and naturally loses his heart in the process.

The young and beautiful Margery Fleming, daughter of the corrupt State Treasurer, Allan Fleming, seeks Knox's assistance after her father disappears.  Her father, we learn, is a "successful politician of the criminal type," so it's no surprise that the trail of his disappearance should lead to more shady political characters and criminal doings.  It eventually leads to murder at the rough and tumble club, The White Cat.  What's a surprise, though, is the disappearance of Margery's sweet and timid aunt, Jane, around the same time.  Can all these mysterious and sordid events be connected?

Following Knox as he fumbles around does cause the plot to drag at times.  This is made up for, though, by the fun cast of characters and their interactions with each other. Ultimately, the characters carry the book more than the unraveling of the mystery, which is done in a rush in the end and only truly made clear by a tell-all confession. There's an interesting, almost incongruous mix between rather sweet scenes and others that are almost hard boiled.  Still, I found it to be a charming, enjoyable read.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

book review - The Chinese Shawl

Yup, I've written a book review of Patricia Wentworth's The Chinese Shawl.  I posted it on and Powell's Books' website and of course, to be utterly repetitious, I'm posting it here, too.  In the very least, I thought it would be good practice to try and summarize the plot (for query synopses) and my accompanying commentary.

Here it is:

4/5 stars
An enjoyable, nostalgic read.

Set in WWII England, young heiress, Laura Fane, meets her ambitious femme fatale cousin, Tanis, and finds herself tangled in a web of Tanis' intrigues as well as old family grievances.  When Tanis is found murdered, the list of possible suspects is long, for Tanis has left a long list of jilted and jealous enemies, perhaps Laura among them.  But there's more to her murder than meets the eye.  Luckily, Miss Silver, our knitting, Tennyson-quoting private enquiry agent, is there to untangle the mystery and save the day.

I've tended to consider Wentworth's detective fiction as enjoyable but second tier in the British Golden Age detective fiction genre.  Her characters are more stereotypic and the plots fairly predictable.  The novels are definitely "dated" (The Chinese Shawl was originally published in 1943).  The Chinese Shawl is true to this form, but a solid work for Wentworth.  Overlooking its shortcomings, it's a fun read with a charming bit of romance complicated by dastardly characters and murder.  I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy Golden Age mysteries who've exhausted their supply of Christie and Sayers.

Patricia Wentworth

Despite the predictability and dated stereotypes, or perhaps because of them, I've enjoyed reading Patricia Wentworth's mysteries, but, then again, I love a lot of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  I just finished re-reading The Chinese Shawl (published in 1943).

For any reader of this blog who isn't familiar with Patricia Wentworth (however unlikely it is that anyone but me is reading this), she was a British novelist writing primarily detective fiction during what is now considered the British Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a discussion in its own right).  Her first mystery novel, Grey Mask, was published in 1928, and her final novel, The Girl in the Cellar, was published in 1961.  She published a slew of books, mostly featuring her constantly knitting "spinster" "private inquiry agent", Maud Silver, a.k.a. Miss Silver.

Her books would now be classified as "cozy mysteries", typically set in English country manors.  The murdered individual tends to be an unpleasant sort, and the murderer also tends to be really unlikeable (and typically easy to predict).  Wentworth usually focuses on a young (early 20s), pretty heroine and a young (mid 20s) handsome, often brooding hero, both of whom at some point are suspected of the dastardly crime, but then are happily exonerated by the wise and observant Miss Silver.  The police and Scotland Yard, particularly the good-looking, suave Inspector Frank Abbott (later promoted), are astounded and amazed.

Wentworth typically has the murder occur a third or halfway into the novel rather than at the beginning, then sends Miss Silver in to rehash events, collect clues, and interview evasive suspects.  There's a dramatic showdown of some sort near the end.  Wentworth ends the book with the young couple, who ride off into the sunset of a marriage plot ending.

At her best, Wentworth successfully sets up a tense, uncomfortable scenario with dastardly characters attempting to thwart the heroine and hero as well as the path of justice. The bit of romance Wentworth throws in is always very charming.  It's nice to sit back as a reader and enjoy the ride.

I always find it interesting and fun what characteristics are considered befitting to hero, heroine, and villains in works written in a different time.  The characteristics aren't exactly the same as in contemporary times, especially the female characters.

Ironically, it's Miss Silver, who is more in line with a "contemporary" heroine, ironic because she's also "old-fashioned", with "Victorian" sensibilities.  She's also level-headed, brave, independent (both financially and emotionally), and, I would say, mildly contemptuous and amused by blustering, superior-acting men.

By contrast, Wentworth's damsel in distress isn't assertive, career-minded, or worldly in any sense of the world, as contemporary heroines might be.  She ultimately defers to the superiority of the hero.  The heroine doesn't take the gun or poker stick or other implement of destruction into her own hand and take down the baddie by herself (Miss Silver doesn't, either); she lets the capable hero do the grunt work.  The heroine is prone to be frightened, at times incapacitated by the horrors of the murder or when she is almost murdered; she might show pluck, but it's the hero (and Miss Silver) who keeps the cool head and saves the day.

I must admit that the portrayal of the heroine and other female characters as emotionally less stable and, frankly, sometimes more stupid than the men (with the notable exception of Miss Silver) can be a bit trying, but, as I mentioned in the opening of this ramble, the datedness is part of the overall charm. 

I find reading books written in a different time, for a different time, is like dabbling in nostalgia, leaving me a bit wistful but warm and fuzzy. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

peripatetics - Oxford

I'm presently (re-)reading a compilation of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter short stories.  This brought to mind a visit I made to Oxford (the university Lord Peter Wimsey attended, as much as a fictional character can attend a real place), and also created an excuse to post a few pictures.

I also associate Oxford with Phillip Pullman's terrific middle reader, His Dark Materials Trilogy (and related books); some of the stories are in part set in an alternate-universe version of Oxford.

Friday, February 10, 2012

peripatetics - Sherlock Holmes Museum

On one of my trips to London I paid a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

Reading Sherlock Holmes stories is associated with my college days, my freshman year, in particular.  I remember sitting in the university mess hall eating cafeteria food with my volume of Sherlock Holmes stories open before me.  So I have the association of rubbery tofu and nefarious plots.  Yum.

I also really enjoyed Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1980s-'90s television adaption of the series, as well as the 2010 "contemporary" adaption of Sherlock Holmes.  I'm looking forward to the second season coming this spring...
The "bobby" at the entrance was kind enough to pose for me.

His calling card.  Given the confidential nature of my visit to him, I cannot disclose particulars of the curious sequence of events and startling conclusions that followed.

Friday, February 3, 2012

peripatetics - Jane Austen - themed visits to Bath and Winchester

I, too, really enjoyed Jane Austen's novels, read them at least two or three times, and some years ago - never mind how long precisely (to quote Moby Dick), I did a "Jane Austen" - themed trip to Great Britain.  I went to Bath and Winchester.  I didn't make it to Steventon as it was off the BritRail line.  In Bath I visited the Jane Austen Centre and strolled around town.  I gawked at the front entrance to where she once lived.  Then in Winchester I visited the Cathedral, where she's buried, and also went by another front entrance to another home she once lived in.  It was more exciting (well, at least to me) than it sounds.  Really.

Of her novels, I like Pride and Prejudice the best, I think primarily due to the dynamics between the two main characters, Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy.  They were more-or-less "equals" in both their interactions with each other and as they grow in the course of the narrative and overcome their respective prejudice and pride.

I've had some discussions with my husband about the novel; he most definitely has not read all of Austen's novels, only reading what he had to as part of an academic curriculum.  He would rather be subjected to torture than read them of his own accord.  His contention regarding Pride and Prejudice is the primary premise of it is unrealistic with regard to the behavior of the male characters.  It consequently lost his interest quickly.

I guess by the same token, I have noticed when I've read novels, both "classic" and contemporary, written by men from the perspective of a female character, especially in first person narrative, that I've also struggled with finding them believable.  The reverse, my husband tells me, is the same with female authors trying to write from the perspective of a male character (case in point, Willa Cather's My Antonia; to quote my husband, "Great book, but the narrator [Jim Burden] wasn't a man." ).  I suppose if other elements of the book in question are compelling enough, I'm willing to suspend belief  and keep reading.  And, actually, sometimes it's nice read a female author's version of men (like Jane Austen).
Evidence of my visit to Bath.

More evidence.

Yes, the front entrance to where Jane Austen once lived.

And yet another front entrance to where she once lived (Winchester).

Winchester Cathedral.

I also did a painting of the Cathedral grounds (originally posted on my painting blog).

Friday, January 27, 2012

peripatetics - St Austell, Cornwall

I've documented some of this trip to St Austell on my painting blog (2 November 2010 and 14 December 2010), but I thought I'd wax on more about it here.  St Austell was my first real "literary-themed" trip, and part of my first time in Europe.  It was at the end of a youth-hosteling trek with college friends; I set out on my own while they remained in London.  I traveled to St Austell in search of what turned out to be a fictional place described in two of the books in Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising Sequence (Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch).

I wrote then that The Dark Is Rising Sequence was one of my "favorite book series as a child."  That's actually an understatement; I was pretty obsessed with her books.  Once I finished them (the first time) I went through what can only be described as a mourning process.  All other books I tried to read afterward paled in comparison, so I just ended up re-reading hers.  I've lost track how many times I read them.  They also were the first books I bought with allowance and gift money I'd saved up.  I imagined spin-off stories involving the characters, with me involved, of course, joining in the eternal battle between the Light and the Dark (the series incorporates Arthurian and related myths and legends in a contemporary setting, in a cosmological battle between the forces of Dark and Light.  The Dark seeks to control humankind.  Spoiler - the Light wins.)

I did eventually move on... mostly.  I tried reading them recently, and found that, rather sadly, perhaps, I've finally outgrown them.

I hadn't at the time I made my pilgrimage to Cornwall.

Since the fishing village of Trewissick didn't exist (the village named in the books), I stayed in St Austell, where BritRail dropped me off.  It was where the Drew children got off, too, picked up by their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry, in Over Sea, Under Stone.  Only there was a huge, jostling crowd when they got off; I think I was the only one.

I stayed in a charming bed-and-breakfast.  I recall the bed I slept in had a bright orange coverlet.  I sampled "Cornish ice cream" and some grocery store scones.  I made my way to the sea and sat on a boardwalk looking out at families playing sedately on the sand and, beyond, the calm waters stretching out to the horizon.  It was nothing like the restless, shifting sea I imagined in the books, with waves crashing dangerously against the rocks.  There were no pillar-like stones rising up above me on the headland, below which was hidden the golden chalice, an artifact that would become important in defeating the looming forces of the Dark, for the Dark, the Dark is Rising...

Needless-to-say, I enjoyed my visit, my own little adventure.
View from the boardwalk, looking out at one of the headlands.  Notice there are no pillar-like stones on the top of the headland.

More of the calm sea.

St Austell train station.  No one else around.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

peripatetics - Existentialist groupie

I've been something of an Existentialist groupie since high school.  So, no surprise, on a visit to Paris I did a bit of a SartreBeauvoir pilgrimage.  I visited a couple of their hang-outs, Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, their gravesite in Cimetiere Montparnasse, also walked by Hotel La Louisiane, where Sartre and Beauvoir once lived.

I discovered Albert Camus’ and Jean-Paul Sartre’s writing my senior year in high school.  The themes of absurdity, choice, freedom, and responsibility really pulled me, one of those revelatory type of discoveries about ways of looking at life and existence.  I call myself a groupie because I was and am sucked into the personalities of Camus and Sartre (at least the written version); I'm as much fascinated by their lives as their ideas (arguably, these are inextricable).
Cafe de Flore.  
Yes, I even kept the sugar wrapper.
Les Deux Magots.  Now, of course, Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots are more  for tourists like me rather than philosophers and literary luminaries.
Obligatory sugar wrapper.
Place Sartre-Beauvoir.  I had to take a picture of the street sign because it had their name on it.
Beauvoir and Sartre's grave.
Does enchantment pour
Out of every door?
No, it's just on the street where you live.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

peripatetics - Bronte Parsonage and Museum

Having dispensed of the sports topic (for now, at least), I thought I would do some posts of some of my "literary-themed" travels.  My visit to Haworth, England still stands as one of my most cherished.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my “pilgrimage” some years ago to Haworth, England (on my painting blog, - 9 June 2010, 15 February 2011, and 19 March 2011), to see the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and wander the moors.

Like many others, I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in high school and became… let’s say, rather obsessed, re-reading it a number of times and devouring her other books (though – if anyone’s even still reading this, it will be other devotees who may have had a similar experience – I didn’t find her other books nearly as revelatory.  The Professor I found to be a pale precursor, Villette, which I liked, something of a re-write of Jane Eyre, and Shirley well-intended but not very compelling).  I went on to read Anne Bronte’s two novels, which I liked moderately well, and then, finally, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which I enjoyed slightly less than Jane Eyre but appreciated much more.  Emily Bronte, I thought, was ultimately the superior writer of the three.  I also enjoyed Elisabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte and Juliet Barker’s excellent biography of the Brontes, as well as the accompanying Letters.  That’s a brief encapsulation of the material of my obsession, though not the meat of it.

Despite Charlotte Bronte’s admirable stated agenda of asserting a feminist credo, I, much less nobly, was responding in a visceral sense to the melodrama – the passion, the atmosphere.  No doubt the Brontes would be rolling over in their graves if they knew that they were one of the progenitors to a slew of bodice-ripping romances, but I think it’s safe to say it happened.  That wasn’t their only legacy, of course.  They’ve inspired feminist literature, as well (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea being a prime example).  But, still, Charlotte Bronte will forever be known as the author who brought us Edward Rochester, and Emily Bronte, Heathcliff (despite the fact that Heathcliff was a sadistic brute).  The romance between Jane Eyre and Rochester, in particular, was forever branded on my impressionable late adolescent psyche, and to this day continues to fuel my need to see every latest film version of the book that comes out.

It also compelled me to make my little pilgrimage.

I’m so glad I went.  I guess I’m easily amused, but I still get giddy thinking about it.

As I mentioned on my painting blog, I did not run into any Rochesters or non-sadistic brute Heathcliffs.  Alas.  Nothing that exciting.

Aside from meandering through the museum (which was very cool), I set out to roam the moors.  It was a rather blustery, chilly day, overcast and threatening rain.  The moors were largely devoid of any other trekking tourists, so it was just me and the sheep (of which there was quite a number).  I made my way up to Top Withens,thought to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw house in Wuthering Heights.  I remember being struck with how harsh and isolated the landscape was, the endless rolling, barren hills, and could see, feel how it infused the all the Brontes’ novels.

I’m including some pictures I took while I was there to add visual interest to this posting.  I’m also including a sketch of me on the moors and painting I did based on one of the photographs, which I already posted on my painting blog last year.

walking up Main Street
looking back
the church
heading out to the moors
meandering through the misty moors
more meandering
Top Withens
Top Withens and the view beyond
painted version of the same

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alpha Dog

I asked my husband for clarification about the concept of “alpha dogs,” as well as beta dogs, aka, second bananas in basketball.  These terms were some of the vernacular being tossed about by the media and my husband, especially during any NBA trading activity of major basketball celebrities, like LeBron James going to the Miami Heat in the 2010-2011 season, and, more recently, Chris Paul being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The “alpha dog” in basketball, my husband patiently explained to me, is not necessarily the “best” player on the team, the one most athletically gifted with the showy, poster-making shots; that said, he often is the best player on the team.  Skill and talent help.  A lot.  But, first and foremost, the alpha dog functions as the grounding force of the team, the one whom everyone else follows.  His “dominance” appears to largely be due personality, that elusive quality of “leadership”.

My husband’s description does make the use of the “alpha dog” analogy apt enough.  I made a brief foray into reading up on predatory pack animal behavior for this; it appears that the “alpha dog” or alpha wolf, at least, isn’t necessarily the most aggressive, though winning physical challenges from betas is vital; Peter Steinhart in his The Company of Wolves suggests that the alpha may be the one “to hold the pack together, to give it comfort and coordination and belonging."

As a side note, romance writers' concept of “alpha heroes”, and in paranormal romances, in particular (since a lot of them involve predatory pacts of werewolves and vampires), define them similarly; the alpha hero, in addition to being tall, dark (sometimes blond, though), and handsome (devastatingly so), is, once you get through the tough, muscled, brain-bashing exterior, better at talking about feelings than I am.

This “dominance” hierarchy in basketball is not akin to teenage boys attempting to master insecurity and establish their identity.  To be sure, there’s plenty of power displays in college and professional basketball, stare-downs, trash-talking, the “oh, sorry, I didn’t see you” bumps on the shoulder as I oh-so-casually walk past you.  But these are usually against opposing team players; it’s a strategy to try gain a competitive advantage.  Well, it can also be about bad tempers and bruised egos.  And sources tell me that alphas and betas in a team are not past put overly presumptuous rookies “in their place” outside the court.  The rookie cubs will need to prove their worth on the court to establish their rightful place in the pack

The hierarchy is established ultimately because it is arguably the most successful strategy to win, as it is thought to be for wolf packs to survive.  My husband referred to it as the “Big Three” tactic; that is, in addition to the alpha, there are two bananas seconding him, who on any given night may dominate, take command of the game.  An example is the current roster for the Miami Heat, fronted by Dwayne Wade,  LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, or the legendary Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan era (with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman).

Yet at the same time the bananas need to “know their role and stick to it” (quote from my husband).  If betas or gammas (defined variably as third in line, the nonconformist, a mellowed alpha, or a loser, depending on the context; there doesn’t appear to be a consensus) are either unaware or in denial of their status and role and actively try to usurp the alpha position, the rest of the players get confused, plays get broken, and opportunities are lost.

Having no alpha at all doesn’t work well, either, no matter how much talent there may be on the team.  In these cases, my husband suggests, the team relies primarily on the coach to serve as proxy for alpha, but in my husband's opinion it’s ineffective at best.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of the “Big Three,” other playing strategies, like Dirk Nowitzki’s “One Man Show” approach that won the Dallas Mavericks the 2010-2011 NBA Championships, what my husband referred to as “surreal to watch,” or to cite his other example, having a well-balanced team like the Detroit Pistons (I’ll have to take his word on that one)

An interesting deviation from the wolf pack analogy is the omega role.  In wolves, the omega is at the bottom of the hierarchy, the butt of everyone's joke.  The closest analogy in basketball parlance is what my husband refers to as the “human white flag” or “human victory cigar”.  This is the player who typically occupies the eleventh spot on the bench, and who comes out at in the last seconds of the game, after a team has completely blown away the other team or is conceding defeat.  Rather than the butt of everyone, this is typically a “good locker room guy that everyone likes”.  He’s someone who’s “not going to do anything stupid, practices hard, and is always on time.  He reminds good players what they’re supposed to be doing."

At the Division I college level, sometimes coaches put in as “fifth man” in the starting team (of five) someone who looks curiously undersized, never seems to have the ball, isn’t taking a lot of shots, doesn’t appear to do much of anything, but is always “in position,” where he’s supposed to be.  My husband calls this player an “extension of the coach,” to remind other players of various defensive sets and plays.   Also contrary to the omega wolf analogy, this player is also generally well-liked and respected because he integrally facilitates the alpha in grounding and organizing the team.  This player is typically never good enough to go “pro”, but does great in community and office basketball leagues.  He rules as alpha at that level.

Actually, in keeping with the idea that having an alpha is more a practical strategy rather than based on naturally aggressive natures, my husband notes that in his community and work-related leagues, the hierarchy is much more vague, because the stakes are less high (well, for most), and of course the talent pool isn’t as – well, as stellar.  As my husband described it, in his current office team, “none of us suck,” but his teammates segregate into two camps, those who “know how to play” and those who are “confused.”  It’s good to have some teammates who are in the former camp on the court.

Notably, his current team is doing well.  They have no losses so far and may very well make it to the championship game again (like last year; they won).